That may seem a strange question but there’s a serious point behind it. Many regular readers of Marilyn’s blog will have noticed the flurry of activity in 2016, inspired by some in the legal profession, to have McKenzie Friends banned. Actually, to be fair to lawyers, they don’t mind McKenzie Friends who do it for free – it’s really just the band of ‘cutthroat’ exploiters who charge exorbitant fees and have an agenda linked to ‘father’s rights groups’ (FRGs) that seem to stick in the craw.
Recent research by Australian based academic Angela Melville has highlighted the apparent dangers such individuals pose to the poor unsuspecting client who seeks them out:
‘… many McKenzie Friends associated with FRGs assert that fathers are victims of gender bias in the family justice system, lawyers are unaffordable, untrustworthy, and excessively adversarial, and only McKenzie Friends can produce the outcomes wanted by fathers.’
Dr Melville’s rigorous academic research was based on her observations of social media sites from her base in Flinders University, Adelaide. She continues:
‘..it is argued that McKenzie Friends associated with FRGs promote powerful social myths that support gender inequality and violence against women, and deny children’s rights.’
She seems to focus on the ‘professional McKenzie’ associated with fathers – a group that make up 70 per cent of applicants and just 15 per cent of those who accessed the £112 million spent on Private Law Legal Aid in 2016. These ‘professional McKenzie Friends’ are a very visible ‘target’.
The term McKenzie Friend actually isn’t very clearly defined BUT if we look at the most recent Practice Guidance issued by the late Sir Nicholas Wall almost seven years ago we see that:
‘MFs may: i) provide moral support for litigants; ii) take notes; iii) help with case papers; iv) quietly give advice on any aspect of the conduct of the case.’
So, who are these McKenzie Friends who are NOT McKenzie Friends? In the main they are called ‘support workers’. Some are employed by ‘Women’s Aid’ organisations to help women who have presumably been the victims of domestic violence and abuse. Others might be volunteers for other charities such as the Personal Support Unit (PSU) or Citizens Advice or even the National Centre for Domestic Violence. Like any ‘McKenzie Friend’ they cannot conduct litigation nor address the Court without specific leave to do so. The problem however is that Courts don’t seem to recognise these ‘support workers’ as ‘McKenzie Friends’. That is a problem because it means that the Court may apply a double standard – treating those who don’t have recourse to these ‘support workers’ less favourably.
Now of course no-one would wish to impugn the integrity of those excellent volunteers for the PSU and similar organisations. Research undertaken by our charity for the Family Justice Council sampled the opinions of 260 recent (within the last 18 months) Family Court users and found that solicitors were almost twice as likely to send people to the door of the Family Court as a means of resolving their issues as advice and support agencies like Families Need Fathers, Citizens Advice or Women’s Aid.
But if ‘McKenzie Friends’ linked to ‘father’s rights groups’ are ‘promoting powerful myths about gender inequality’ what is the position of the Women’s Aid McKenzie?
Dr Melville was a collaborator with Family Justice Council academic representative Professor Rosemary Hunter on the 2001 research paper ‘As everybody knows: countering myths of gender bias in family law’.
Presumably Melville and Hunter would now argue – as they did back then – that the likely stance taken by Women’s Aid McKenzie Friends isn’t really a consideration worthy of note because:
‘Feminist researchers need to counter the myths of the men’s movement with empirical research AND to focus on structural inequalities…..Men may indeed feel emotional pain but they still occupy the dominant position within society’.
Photo by Quinn Dombrowski via Flickr