A McKenzie Friend is someone who is provides court-recognised non-legal support (e.g. taking notes, organising documents, provide advice) for someone who is unrepresented in court. He or she is not a formal legal representative and is not entitled to address the court without specific permission. Legal training is not required for a McKenzie Friend.
Who needs a McKenzie Friend?
Many people live on incomes well below the official poverty line which leads them into financial problems resulting in issues such as nonpayment of TV Licence, fare dodging and child truancy. Unfortunately there is no legal aid for most of these cases and it is difficult to find free representation.
People on low incomes often get into arrears with rent, council tax, gas and electricity. These arrears are often caused by various different factors, from mistakes in benefits to depression. Many who receive a summons lack confidence to turn up in court or represent themselves. This sometimes leads to a maximum fine they cannot afford. Enforcement by bailiffs further compounds the penalty as bailiffs’ costs are added to it.
Having the assistance of McKenzie Friends with the unrepresented in the Magistrate and county courts makes a huge difference to the outcome, by:
- giving them the courage to attend court
- enabling them to explain their circumstances
- helping to identify a defence where appropriate
- guiding them round the court and the procedures
- securing a sensible payment plan
- taking notes
How we use McKenzie Friends to help our clients
We and our volunteers become friends to those we help, speaking on their behalf to the statutory authorities, utility companies and other organisations – going with them to explain their situation.
- Many of those we help are intimidated not just by the courts but also by the whole complex system of statutory authorities particularly benefit agencies.
- Most of those we help have only PAYG mobile phones and do not have the means to top up their credit. They are often put on hold for many minutes by the statutory authorities which eats into their credit.
- Many are not articulate in English and have difficulties conversing over the phone and expressing themselves in writing.
- Most are severely depressed and are unable to help themselves without the support of someone who is on their side.
Our work is designed to help relieve the stress and mental illness caused by debt which has such a detrimental effect on everyone especially those families with children.
Our “McKenzie Friending” is currently focused in the Magistrates Court and the County Court.
How a McKenzie Friend helped a single mother with rent arreas
A single mother who had to go to court because of rent arrears (despite working, she could not afford the rent and her housing benefit was not enough to cover it). The landlord applied to the court for an order to evict her.
“I was very scared and stressed over what would become of my children and me. On the day of the court hearing, I felt safe and supported and no longer afraid. I experienced a sense of belonging, and someone willing to spend their time and step in to guide me. I had never been to court before in my life, and all I expected was handcuff and jail, whilst my children were out in the cold. But my McKenzie friend gave me the support and prepared me on what to expect in court.”
In fact the McKenzie Friend helped to ensure that the landlord’s claim was thrown out and helped to negotiate an arrangement with the landlord.
Recognition of McKenzie Friends by the Court
The role of a McKenzie Friend was recognised by court in the case MCKENZIE v MCKENZIE 1970 3 W L R 4721.
There are 2 further official documents which offer guidance on McKenzie friends. Although they both make similar points, it is advisable to read through each one.
- President’s Guidance: McKenzie Friends, by the President of the Family Division
- HMCS : Guidance from the President’s Office – McKenzie Friends (updated July 2010)
Joanna Kennedy, our chief executive explains in an article how important a McKenzie Friend is to the legal system.
Help before the matter goes to the Court
A hearing is usually the final stage for a person with debt problems or fines. It is often much more helpful to resolve the issues before an issue reaches a court hearing by tackling the root causes of the debt/fine which can be a problem with benefit payments or helping to negotiate a sensible payment arrangement.
McKenzie Friends supporting immigration detainees
In conjunction with AVID (The Association of Visitors to Immigration Detainees) we conducted McKenzie Friends training for those who are already working with immigration detainees. The course provided guidance to volunteers on how to provide support to an immigration detainee when they are applying for bail. From 1 Jan 2011, AVID took over the organisation of this training course.
1. This case is reproduced with the kind permission of The Incorporated Council of Law Reporting for England and Wales (http://www.lawreports.co.uk/)