Over the weekend news broke that a ‘professional’ McKenzie friend has been jailed for three years after being found guilty of multiple offences relating to the services he provided for his clients. The news had a certain sad inevitability about it. The legal aid cuts have forced people to look elsewhere for legal help, including going to McKenzie friends who charge for their services. And as I have said here before (and as many others have also said), without proper training and regulation McKenzie friends pose a serious risk to vulnerable people lacking that access to proper legal assistance.
In the case the McKenzie friend had been offering help in cases involving children or grandchildren. He deliberately sought out people who were unable to obtain legal assistance due to the legal aid cuts. His clients paid a fee up front. According to Central Bedfordshire Council, which investigated the case, the man would then claim to have worked on the clients’ cases by applying for court orders, arranging court dates, contacting former partners and their legal firms and liaising with social services and the Child Support Agency. None of which he actually did. As a result, his clients lost some £5,000, which may not seem much, but probably represented large sums to people on very low income.
The man pleaded guilty to 15 trading standards offences relating to family law, for which he was jailed for three years. He also pleaded guilty to other offences, for which he received concurrent sentences.
The reports that I have read of the case suggest that the man did not have any professional indemnity insurance, which would have reimbursed the clients for their losses. Unlike lawyers, McKenzie friends, even those who charge for their services, are not at present required to have insurance, just as they are not required to have any training or regulation. The case is a clear and predictable example of the dangers that unregulated McKenzie friends pose to their clients.
OK, you might say, some trained and qualified lawyers do wrong by their clients, causing distress, jeopardising their cases and costing them wasted legal fees. This is all very true. However, with the legal profession being so highly regulated, such instances, bad though they are, are comparative rarities. The simple fact is that the likelihood of encountering a problem with an unregulated legal advisor is surely going to be far greater. And, as I’ve already indicated, the lawyer should be insured, which will indemnify the client against any financial loss they suffer. The client of the lawyer also has an avenue of redress via the lawyer’s regulator.
I’ll repeat once again that there are some very good McKenzie friends out there (who must be distraught at damage to their reputation caused by bad eggs). However, the fact is that by withdrawing legal aid the government has left the poorest in society at the mercy of untrained, unregulated and uninsured legal advisers, some of whom are quite clearly charlatans preying upon the vulnerable.
Photo by Stefano Corso via Flickr