“I’m motivated by creating a level playing field for the world so that the weak have a chance.”
– Iqbal Quadir, Entrepreneur
News broke on Monday that a paid McKenzie friend has been jailed for perverting the course of justice in a family court. Now we obviously shouldn’t read too much into one isolated incident but the case does serve as a reminder of the dangers of unregulated legal assistance.
I don’t actually recall hearing of a case in which a qualified lawyer was jailed for perverting the course of justice, or for any other reason connected with the legal services he or she provides, although I suppose it has happened. However, considering the large number of qualified lawyers compared to the small number of unqualified, unregulated legal helpers, even one case in the unregulated sector can possibly be described as significant.
But it is not just one case. Last year, for example, I wrote here about a case in which a ‘professional’ McKenzie friend was jailed for three years after being found guilty of multiple offences relating to the services he provided for his clients. And there have been many other examples of poor, inadequate or incompetent service from unregulated legal helpers.
The simple fact of the matter is that there is a far higher chance of things going wrong if a litigant seeks the help of an untrained, unregulated and uninsured legal helper, rather than a qualified, fully regulated and fully insured lawyer. Unfortunately, however, not everyone has the choice. Since the government saw fit to abolish legal aid for most private law family matters instructing a qualified lawyer has simply not been an option for many people on low incomes.
One might have thought that the government would at least protect the low-income litigant against the charlatans by introducing requirements for training, regulation and insurance. After all, qualified lawyers are subjected to those requirements precisely to protect the public that they serve.
But no, the government has not done any such thing. And the reason for this is simple: the unregulated legal helpers serve their purpose. They help fill the huge gap in legal help caused by the abolition of legal aid, and the last thing the government wants to do is scare them away by imposing regulation upon them. Unregulated legal helpers give the illusion that proper legal assistance is available to all, but it simply not true. As I have said here before, and I’ll say again, there are some very good McKenzie friends out there. But to suggest that they are all as good as qualified lawyers is at best misleading, and at worst fraudulent. The government knows this very well, but is quite happy for the less well off in society (and often the most vulnerable) to receive a second-rate service in the minefield of unregulated legal assistance.
OK, you might say, but there are some bad lawyers out there, and regulation is no guarantee against a bad service. I agree. However, there are two points to make here: firstly, with full training and regulation the chances of getting a bad service must be considerably less. Secondly, there is the small matter of insurance. It is compulsory for all qualified lawyers to have insurance. Accordingly, even if the client suffers loss as a result of bad service by a qualified lawyer, at least they will be compensated for that loss. There is no compulsory insurance in the unregulated sector.
The government has left the poorest and most vulnerable high and dry by the abolition of legal aid, and has shown its lack of care for them by allowing them to be prey to charlatans and incompetents. If steps are not taken to properly regulate all legal advisers then there will inevitably be more headlines like the ones we have seen, and they will appear on a regular basis. We must have regulation for all, so that there is a level playing field, where every member of the public is protected, irrespective of their means.
Photo by mary wareham via Flickr under a Creative Commons licence.