What Are The Risks Of Using McKenzie Friends?
The Law Of… knowing the risks of using McKenzie friends
Desperate for her children to be returned to her care, one parent – Rupinder Randhawa – turned to McKenzie friends for help, after she was told that her chances of getting her children back were almost impossible.
But, she sadly found out that putting her trust and money in McKenzie friends wasn't the right decision.
Carol Chrisfield, Associate in Family Law, investigates what risks are involved with using McKenzie friends.
What Are McKenzie Friends?
A McKenzie friend is someone, such as a friend or a relative, who can attend court hearings with you if you don’t have a solicitor and offer you moral support.
It's important to note that McKenzie friends are not legal professionals, so there's a limit on what support they can provide you with.
They can sit with you in court, take notes, and give you some advice, but they cannot act on your behalf in any capacity.
Some McKenzie friends work on a voluntary basis, but there are some who do charge fees for their services.
Putting Her Trust In The Wrong Person
After social services told Rupinder that her 2 youngest children were going to be adopted and she received legal advice warning her that it wouldn't be possible to obtain an order that they be returned to her care, she was adamant that she was going to do whatever she could to get them back.
"Any parents in a similar situation would identify with the strength of her desire", Carol comments.
Rupinder came across the Parent's Voice London, a service that offered McKenzie friends, which was run by David Bright.
Claiming that he had "never lost a case", Bright charged Rupinder £480 a month – along with additional charges – whilst he worked on her case as a McKenzie friend. She unfortunately lost her case, and decided not to challenge the adoption of her children.
David then asked Rupinder to pay an extra £6,000, which would cover the costs of a book being published about her case and promised her that this would help her get her children back.
She handed over the £6,000 payment to David, but no book was ever published.
"I felt like I'd been conned", Rupinder said. "I felt my whole world come crashing around me, because there was no hope in getting my children back."
David made the headlines last year after he, and another director of The Parent's Voice, were convicted of perverting the course of justice in a different case.
Giving Parents A False Sense Of Hope
Another parent, referred to as 'Stephen', said he found the Parent's Voice when his marriage had come to an end and his ex-wife was seeking arrangements for their children to live with her.
Stephen said that David had "told me exactly what I wanted to hear."
"He asked me if I wanted custody. He asked me how much I wanted to see the kids."
Stephen ended up paying David over £12,000 for work that he never actually carried out.
David and Rupinder were both able to recover some of their costs from David when they won county court judgements against him and The Parent's Voice for work that was promised but never undertaken.
As a former McKenzie friend for The Parent's Voice, Jenny Lewington told the BBC that she was concerned about the way in which David worked. Whilst at a hearing for a case where a mother was appealing an adoption, Jenny discovered that David had "submitted the wrong form to apply for the appeal."
When she spoke to him about this, he said that his actions were deliberate in order to "try and delay matters."
Unfortunately, the mother lost her case. Speaking about the outcome, Jenny suggested that The Parent's Voice misled the mother into believing that she could win.
Why Do Parents Use McKenzie Friends?
If parents are involved in a dispute over the the arrangements for their children and they cannot afford legal representation or don't qualify for legal aid, they may turn to the use of services like McKenzie friends.
"Whilst it might seem like a more cost-effective option for parents, McKenzie friends aren't legal professionals and don't have the same level of training or experience in handling such cases", Carol explains.
"It's important for any parent thinking about using them to find out what they can realistically deliver before they use their service."
Some experts have expressed concerns over the way in which McKenzie friends charging fees for their services operate.
"One of our concerns about the rise in paid-for McKenzie friends is that a lot of these people are effectively acting as lawyers and advertising themselves as lawyers", Richard Miller from the Law Society said.
"But they do not have legal training and legal qualifications, and they do not have the duties to the court that a qualified lawyer does."
"The thought of being separated from a child is terrifying for any parent, who may understandably try anything they can to stop it from happening."
"Whilst McKenzie friends can provide important emotional support to parents during court proceedings, the parents need to understand that a McKenzie friend may not have the training that is required of a solicitor and the role of a McKenzie friend is limited."
"Even if you don't think you'll qualify for legal aid, we always recommend speaking to one of our Family Law solicitors about your situation. We can investigate whether you might qualify for legal aid to cover the costs of your case."
"At Simpson Millar we are able to offer access to justice rates, which could make our services affordable to those who qualify."
"We also offer affordable fixed fee and targeted services, where you're in control of the services you receive."
"We know that not every parent can afford legal fees and it can be devastating, especially in the more complex cases. But, there is still help out there for you – we can identify whether mediation is appropriate for your case or if your case relates to CAFCASS, we can direct you to a relevant helpline."