Following the legal aid changes, the public were left with little choice but to resort to cheaper forms of legal representation. However, the law society Gazette has warned against some who have acted unjustly.
David Bright, 48, of North London was sentenced on 14 October at Wood Green Crown Court to 12 months’ imprisonment after being found guilty of submitting a false report written by someone claiming to be a psychologist during a family dispute earlier this year.
The court heard that one of the parents involved in the dispute had been ‘emotionally and financially’ affected by the case and lost contact with his children as a result.
The court heard that Bright had previously received a five-year probation order after being found guilty of money laundering in the US in 1996.
Ray Barry told the Law Society Gazette that a criminal conviction is not an absolute bar to membership of the Society of Professional McKenzie Friends. He said that his organisation has a complaints procedure ‘for consumers who believe a member has not lived up to our standards’ and that it ‘verifies that all its members have professional indemnity insurance, against which a consumer can claim financial redress’.
Last year, another paid McKenzie friend, who verbally abused a courtroom opponent was banned indefinitely from representing anyone in court. Nigel Baggaley also threatened other lawyers, swore at ushers and phoned clerks to say he was ‘coming for’ an opposing barrister.
A consultation by HM Judiciary on the issue of paid McKenzie friends closed in June. It proposed a ban on fee-charging McKenzie friends and recommended that all McKenzie friends sign up to a code of conduct, and that rules governing the courts’ approach to McKenzie friends be legally codified.
Law Society president Robert Bourns said McKenzie friends fall into several categories. ‘They could be family or friends, or pro bono scheme volunteers who may have some legal background; and then there are those who charge for their services, possibly selling services with no legal qualifications and little experience and others who may be pursuing their own activist agenda.’
Bourns warned: ‘Clients of fee-paid McKenzie friends have no assurance of their legal knowledge – and [may] be left with no redress if things go wrong. They are not necessarily cheaper than solicitors, who are regulated and deliver a high standard of quality service for all clients. Our members have witnessed the damage done by inexperienced and on occasions unscrupulous McKenzie friends.’