I was amused at the weekend to read that the Society of Professional McKenzie Friends is introducing new rules that will require all of its members to have Professional Indemnity Insurance, and a qualification, equivalent to A level or above, in law or other relevant subject, or have 3 years experience as a McKenzie Friend. (By way of comparison so far as qualification is concerned, most lawyers need a degree, a year’s professional training and two years training before they qualify.)
Of course I welcome the move, which will give the public some measure of protection against McKenzie Friends who don’t know what they are doing or who make mistakes. What I find amusing, however, is how it reduces the ‘difference’ between McKenzie Friends (or at least those who belong to the Society) and lawyers.
It is like a circle that is gradually being completed. Imagine a circular flow chart like this, where you start from the top and inevitably end up there again:
As you will see, the circle hasn’t yet been full completed, but we’re getting there. The simple fact of the matter is that the public require protection from well-meaning but ignorant amateurs, those who make errors and, well, charlatans. Accordingly, those who provide legal advice will have to be trained, regulated and insured.
Ah, you may say, but McKenzie Friends are a lot cheaper than lawyers! That is of course true, but only for the moment. One of the reasons that lawyers have to charge what they do is precisely because they have to be highly trained (particularly in these days of student fees), highly regulated and require expensive insurance. Once these requirements are imposed upon McKenzie Friends then they will inevitably have to increase their charges in order to stay in business.
Please don’t get me wrong. As I have stated here before, I am not for one moment saying that all McKenzie Friends currently do a bad job or are a risk for their clients. I know that some of them are very good at what they do, as has been acknowledged on at least one occasion to my knowledge by a judge hearing a case in which one was involved. The fact of the matter, however, is that for the time being lawyers are obviously likely to be better at what they do and likely to provide better protection for their clients than McKenzie Friends.
As a result, and as I’ve also said here previously, until such time as the circle has been completed, we will have a two-tier legal system, in which the less well off get a poorer service. Of course, when the circle is completed and McKenzie Friends have to charge similar rates to lawyers, then the less well off will no longer be able to afford to instruct them.
As to what happens then, I’ve got an idea: state funding for legal advice – I will call it ‘Legal Aid’.