It takes a lot of time, effort and money to train as a lawyer. This usually entails obtaining a degree in law following a three-year course, then undergoing a one-year vocational training course (and passing the exams at the end of it), followed by a period of training ‘on the job’ (for two years, in the case of solicitors). Only when all of that has been successfully completed is the lawyer qualified to advise and represent members of the public.
Once the lawyer has qualified, the training does not end. Throughout their careers they are required to undergo ‘continuous professional development’, which usually involves attending a certain number of training seminars each year.
Whilst practising the lawyer must comply with detailed rules governing such things as the way they run their business, duties towards their clients and handling their clients’ money. Failure to comply with these rules could result in disciplinary proceedings, and even being struck off. Lawyers also need to have a certificate from their professional body authorising them to act – the certificate is renewed annually, and costs a fee.
In addition, lawyers are required to be insured, so that their clients are compensated for any loss if things should go wrong. This ‘indemnity insurance’ can be extremely expensive, costing thousands of pounds a year.
All of the above requirements are not just there for fun. They are, of course, intended to protect the public: to ensure, so far as possible, that the lawyer they instruct is of a sufficient standard, that the lawyer looks after their interests, and to protect them if things go wrong.
Recently the Legal Services Consumer Panel, which exists to look after the interests of consumers of legal services, gave its endorsement to fee-charging McKenzie Friends. A McKenzie Friend ‘supports litigants in person by providing moral support, taking notes, helping with case papers and quietly giving advice’. They do not have the right to conduct litigation or act as an advocate, but the courts may grant them rights of audience in the interests of justice, on a case-by-case basis.
In a recent report, the Panel found “that the potential benefits to litigants of fee-charging McKenzie Friends outweigh the potential risks and they should be accepted as a legitimate feature of the legal services market”. The report told us that these McKenzie Friends can charge up to £89 an hour. This may be considerably less than a trained lawyer, but can soon mount up to a sizeable sum.
McKenzie Friends are not required to be qualified, trained, regulated or insured. Some are apparently even lawyers who have been struck off. I never came across one whilst I was practising (there were less of them then), but I have recently heard a number of horror stories from other lawyers of McKenzie Friends who simply didn’t know what they were doing – making things far worse for their clients than if they were not represented at all.
Having said that, I know there are some very good McKenzie Friends out there. However, even if the McKenzie Friend does know what they are doing, everyone can make mistakes. With no insurance protection, those mistakes can be extremely expensive for their clients.
Now, I’m sure I am not alone in finding it completely absurd that there are so many rules and regulations governing lawyers in order to protect the public, yet now untrained and uninsured legal representatives are being positively encouraged. I am actually one of those who has thought for years that the legal profession has become increasingly over-regulated, but to subject the public to the risks of no regulation at all is to step back to the dark ages when the public ran the gauntlet of charlatans and frauds, with no recompense if things went wrong.
And the ones who will be taking those risks are, of course, the less well-off, who no longer have the safety-net of legal aid. Truly, we have one system for the rich and another, second-rate one, for the poor.