A new breed of untrained legal advocates who are ripping off the public with “flawed” and “dangerous” legal advice should be banned, lawyers’ leaders and politicians have urged ministers.
The Bar Council, Law Society and head of the Commons Justice Committee are alarmed by cases where unregulated and uninsured advocates – known as McKenzie Friends – have left “vulnerable” clients out of pocket or even led them into breaking the law through their poor advice.
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In one case a paid McKenzie friend was jailed for perverting the course of justice, another cost an elderly patient £70,000 which it took him almost a decade to recoup and a third wrongly advised a young family they could leave the UK with their son in breach of a family court order.
McKenzie friends have in the past been “friends” or “relatives” who have provided unpaid support to people in court, tribunals or the workplace, often without necessarily advocating on their behalf.
However, cuts in legal aid have led to a surge in McKenzie friends setting up businesses which advertise themselves as a cheaper professional alternative to solicitors and barristers that can represent victims in court. They still charge as much as £75 an hour.
Bob Neill, Conservative chairman of the Justice Committee, told The Daily Telegraph: “Regulation needs to be tightened. I certainly would consider prohibiting McKenzie friends operating for payment. If you are paying for a lawyer, you should get a lawyer.
“They hold themselves out as quasi-solicitors for payment which is very different from the traditional idea of McKenzie as a workplace colleague or trade union representative going along as a defendant’s friend.
“They have grown into areas like insurance claims, claims management and immigration which means they can be hitting on people who are quite vulnerable.”
Barrister Amanda Pinto used her inaugural speech as the new chair of the Bar Council to demand a crackdown on “unregulated” McKenzie friends, who unlike solicitors had no disciplinary or professional body that could take action against them for failings.
“We are very concerned at the growth in the number of paid McKenzie Friends who are unregulated, untrained and yet demand money for their intervention – often from the most vulnerable litigants,” she said. “There are instances of them giving completely wrong advice.”
The judicial executive board, chaired by the Lord Chief Justice Lord Burnett and comprising Britain’s most senior judges, has also asked the Government to review whether there should be a ban.
It says it is “deeply concerned” at the “proliferation” of McKenzie friends who “provide professional services for reward when they are unqualified, unregulated, uninsured and not subject to the same professional obligations and duties, both to their clients and the courts, as are professional lawyers.”
Paul Wright hired a McKenzie friend to sue a hospital after he was three plastic bags still in his body after an operation. He won £20,000 but had £75,000 costs awarded against him.
It took nearly a decade until a court ordered the McKenzie friend – George Rusz, a his non-legally qualified adviser – to pay 70-year-old Mr Wright more than £330,000 in damages and costs.
Emma Jones, Mr Wright’s lawyer at solicitors Leigh Day, said it set a precedent that McKenzie friends could be held liable like solicitors if they presented themselves as “competent legal advisers.”
In another case, a family handed themselves into police in Ireland after a MacKenzie friend advised them they could leave the UK with their child in defiance of an interim care order.
David Bright, a McKenzie friend, was jailed for perverting the course of justice when submitted a psychology report in a family court case written by his partner who falsely claimed to be a clinical psychologist.
The court heard that one of the parents involved in the dispute had been ‘emotionally and financially’ affected by the case and lost contact with his children as a result.