Fake Friends: MPs Call for a Ban on McKenzie Friends

May 7, 2019

3 min read

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What's going on here?

Following a recent High Court judgment, the chair of the Commons Justice Select Committee (a Parliamentary committee which scrutinises the country’s justice system) has called for a ban on paid McKenzie friends.

What does this mean?

McKenzie friends are individuals who offer encouragement and support to those who choose to represent themselves in court. People often use the services of a McKenzie friend because of the high costs involved with using a traditional lawyer. McKenzie friends can offer their services for free, and often do if they’re the claimant’s family members or work as part of a charity. However, McKenzie friends can choose to charge for their services. These fees can be sizeable as they have complete discretion over their rates.

One such fee-charging McKenzie friend, George Rusz, was recently found to have been negligent in his handling of a clinical negligence case (rather ironically). As such, a High Court Judge ordered Mr. Rusz to pay £263,000 in damages and over £70,000 in costs. This judgment was in part delivered due to the high costs imposed on the 70-year-old claimant that Mr Rusz had been representing. Claimant Paul Wright enlisted Mr Rusz’s help in order to win a claim as an operation he had left him permanently disabled. Although Mr Rusz said that he’d help Wright to win his case, Wright was left to pay a five-figure bill for costs after no evidence was presented at court.

In delivering the judgment, the Court said that Mr Rusz should be held to the same standard as a qualified lawyer. Indeed, the claimant was told that Rusz’s advice would be “as good as, if not better, than any solicitor or barrister”. As such, it seems fair that Rusz is held to the standard he himself set.

What's the big picture effect?

This case highlights the potential dangers that unregulated McKenzie friends pose. Currently, anyone can call themselves a McKenzie friend. No specific qualifications or any type of certification is needed. While this has its benefits (namely that family members and friends are able to help out claimants in court free of charge) the dangers are severe enough that regulation, at the very least, is needed. As a result of the lack of rules around McKenzie friends, anyone can claim to be an expert and charge for their services. Not only is there no mechanism for validating the level of experience McKenzie Friends claim to have, but they also have total discretion over the fees that they charge. As well as this, unlike law firms, McKenzie friends don’t necessarily have to have professional indemnity insurance.

Some McKenzie friends have set up societies or institutions that offer some protection to users. These societies have their own terms of conduct, which may mean they have a higher standard of accountability. But there is no strict obligation to follow any code of conduct. The only real protection offered by such societies is that some of them may have professional indemnity insurance which means at least some financial recourse can be sought if they act negligently.

Currently, the only rights a person has when using a McKenzie friend comes from the Consumer Rights Act 2015. The key right is that you should be treated fairly and get a good level of service. However, this is nowhere near the high standard of protection that regular law firms must keep. As such, it is clearly time for change. Indeed, Conservative MP Bob Neil has said it is “time for Parliament to bite the bullet and ban this unscrupulous practice”.

For now, at least, this judgment serves as an indicator of what will happen.

Report written by Connor B

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