The dangers of unregulated McKenzie friends

Family Law|August 25th 2015

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

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  1. Jerry Lonsdale says:

    I was simply horrified when I first came across this article, the horrors became even deeper when I read the facts of the case.

    I have been a “Professional” McKenzie Friend for a few months shy of ten years, I find it staggering that there is nothing in the regulation front to protect the consumer/client.

    In March/April of last year I took part in the Report on Fee charging MKF’s commissioned by Legal Futures,

    That Report can be found here –

    I was somewhat outnumbered during the discussions as I was only one of two present whom did not charge fee’s, during the round table discussions the horror stories that we heard were spine chilling, and I will add a more quite recent “Hoax” and controversial case in Hampstead was attended by the very the MKF’s involved in that case during the discussions.

    At the end of the discussions and report published it was agreed or should I say suggested that MKF’s could “Self Regulate” well, we all know what happens to other industries that self regulated in the past – *Cough* kers!

    I am still appalled that we are hearing cases where an unregulated MKF has been able to act in this way, it is simply inexcusable to treat the consumer/client in such an abhorrent way,

    I have recently managed to establish a Social enterprise along with a partner, [from the bar] to set up another option for people unable to obtain qualified legal assistance.

    I will touch upon the issue of PII – we managed to obtain it and well it took an almighty battle to obtain the insurance and at some considerable cost I may add, despite the many insurance brokers we approached many were not willing to insure us because of “Non Qualifications” despite my partner being from the Bar, although non practicing it was still exceptionally difficult to persuade an insurer otherwise, we managed it though.

    One further issue that was paramount in the discussions for regulation of MKF’s what the all important question of who would fund such a thing, in order to have the regulations set in place there are many steps to be taken all at quite substantial costs, even with out SE, we were turned down by many backs and institutions for funding for our Social enterprise, again though we got there.

    I have been stalwart in that the industry of MKF’s and other Lay Advisers should be fully regulated, despite the immense opposition from the professional quarters from the likes of the Law Society and the Bar, the risks people could face, like the article above, without regulation far out weigh just costs alone, I am not sure how it could be achieved, or even if it is indeed possible, I will never give up hope in trying though!

  2. Wistilia says:

    He was ‘not’ a Mckenzie Friend.
    He ‘posed’ as a Mckenzie Friend as the official reports state.
    He ‘never’ went to Court with his victims, he just took their money and ran.
    He set up numerous websites and took money as a fraudster, lying to his victims.
    It was Mckenzie Friends who helped his victims by pointing them to Action Fraud and the Police.
    He could have pretended to have been a Solicitor or a Barrister and took money, you would not describe him then as a Lawyer, you would rightfully call him a Fraudster.
    Please get this right.

  3. Nick Langford says:

    Wistilia is correct – this man wasn’t a McKenzie, he was just a crook, a common thief. If a man comes to your door offering to do building work and asking for £10k up front and is never seen again he is a crook, not a builder.

    You say, “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.” But of course, if he had done those things, he would have been committing another crime.

    What I find of greater concern are the McKenzies who don’t seem to be aware of the limitations of their roles, or the McKenzies who are unaware and seemingly contemptuous of correct procedure, or the McKenzies who use cases to further their own agendas. They are the ones who are damaging the reputation of other honest, hardworking, law-abiding McKenzies.

  4. Emlyn says:

    Following the consultation with the LAA, I did attend meetings in London as regards setting up a National Association for self regulation. Having seen the proposed governance, many of us walked fearing it was just another money making exercise. It would appear that McKenzie Friends are so disparate that they cannot organise themselves. Thus all of us are kept at arms length by the Family Justice System. I have made submissions to the President about the inadequacies of the Guidance. The judiciary however are concerned more about the reaction of their fellow professionals rather than LIP’s getting a fair hearing. So we get blanket bans in McKenzie Friends and courts unable to decide on who should cross examine. It has to be just as much our fault as the system though. If we cannot regulate ourselves then perhaps the MOJ or similarly appropriate body should. There is a need for proper legal support for LIP’s who cannot afford Legal Aid…but that should be given on a Social Need basis and not for unqualified persons to try and make money out of other persons distress. The best McKenzie’s know each other. If only they could be corralled into some kind of social enterprise which could work alongside the lawyers. Surely that is not to difficult for someone to organise?

  5. Wistilia says:

    It really is important for people to understand that this chap was ‘not’ a McKenzie Friend but a ‘Fraudster’.

    Nick Langford and I have explained things but other posters seem unable to understand.

    It is worrying that posters cannot understand that ‘Regulation’ would not have stopped this Fraudster, as it has ‘not’ stopped Fraudsters in the past pretending to be solicitors or barristers and taking money from their victims.

    There seems to be an element of self-promotion going on.

  6. McKenzie Friends: Bar Chairman says consumer protection has to be paramount  says:

    […] McKenzie Friends have recently hit the headlines for the wrong reasons. One McKenzie Friend was jailed for three years after being found guilty of multiple offences relating to the services he provided for his clients […]

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