Everything changes. Mountains erode, coastlines crumble and even Bruce Forsyth eventually retires. But if you think the pace of change is a little too quick there is still one place that remains constant – head on over to the comments section of the Law Gazette. You can be sure, whatever is going on elsewhere, there you will find lawyers unhappy about something, and normally it’s something said by the Legal Services Consumer Panel.
Predictably, the Panel’s latest report calling for a ‘culture change’ in attitudes towards McKenzie friends went down like a lead balloon with lawyers. McKenzie friends, it said, are a ‘legitimate feature of the modern legal market’ and increase access to justice. Much of the legal profession, it seems, does not agree.
Once upon a time McKenzie Friends were just selfless volunteers who, out of the goodness of their hearts, gave up their own time to help litigants in person who can’t, or don’t want to, use a lawyer, by providing moral support, taking notes, offering advice and helping prepare for court. Now, shockingly, they are increasingly starting to charge.
Lawyer outrage is understandable. They spend quite a lot of time and money qualifying and it must be pretty galling to have studied for years and struggled to get a training contract only to see a lot of unqualified so-and-sos come along and undercut you. And because they aren’t regulated they could be doing heaven knows what.
Except in most cases they aren’t. What they are doing is providing valuable support for people who quite conceivably would otherwise have no access to justice. With legal aid withdrawn from all but the most acute cases, the number of litigants in person, those attending court without a lawyer, is increasingly dramatically.
On the face of it, I’m a fairly knowledgeable, confident and determined person, but I wouldn’t want to represent myself. If someone who’d been through the process before offered me a helping hand for a reasonably modest fee, I’d probably take it. And let’s be honest, the fact s/he isn’t a lawyer is probably a bonus.
It is perfectly reasonable to expect that justice can still be served without legal representation. Indeed it is vital this is the case, particularly when the government seems to be determined to remove lawyers as much as possible from the process of law. This may seem a bit bonkers, but it’s what we’ve got to work with.
Obviously there are risks in unqualified, unregulated and uninsured people supporting litigants in person, but arguably these are outweighed by the alternative, which is people deciding not to go to court at all, or turning up without the slightest clue of what they are doing.
Amazingly, most consumers, even those unable to afford a lawyer, are not stupid and are quite capable of understanding the limits of support that can be offered by a McKenzie friend. And of course, advice is not confined to the unregulated – lawyers are quite capable of not living up to their own professional standards. What consumers need is not a closed shop, but clear, reliable and easily accessible information about their options.
McKenzie friends themselves have acted on the Panel’s recommendation and plan to set up their own trade association to represent those non-lawyer advisers who charge fees. I would suggest they get on with it, because the vast array of McKenzie friend websites already out there risk confusing consumers. I would also like to suggest they stop using hourly rates and come up with some sort of fixed-fee system, otherwise they are in danger of creating the same cost uncertainty that has annoyed consumers of legal services for years.
I do wish lawyers would stop being so afraid of change and innovation. Granted, a lot of the change in the legal market at the moment is not of a particularly positive variety, but getting hot under the collar about something that might mitigate at least some of its worst effects is counterproductive. And it will happen anyway.
“The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance” Alan Watts