Ever since the ruling in Freeman v Marshall & Co in 1966, which concerned the liability of surveyors, there has been some uncertainty on the exact duties owed by unqualified persons purporting to have specialist knowledge. “McKenzie Friends” are those who do not hold proper legal qualifications allowing them to practice law, but frequently hold themselves out to have greater specialist knowledge of litigation than they really do.
In recent years, with access to legal aid so radically curtailed, and with many ordinary people unable to afford the fees of solicitors, these “Friends” have flourished. They have been able to give advice and even represent litigants in person in court, but do not have the benefit of professional indemnity insurance or any sort of proper regulation. Many of them charge fees for their services that seek to undercut the properly regulated legal marketplace.
Although this problem has long been discussed by the legal regulatory bodies, no action has been forthcoming that would lead to a ban on fee-charging McKenzie Friends.
However, all that might change soon - but not because the Ministry of Justice will have taken action.
In an important extempore judgment on Friday, HHJ Jennifer Eady QC, sitting as a Judge of the High Court, decided that a McKenzie Friend (a Mr Rusz) who had held himself out as a competent legal adviser in a clinical negligence case had been negligent and was liable to his client (a Mr Wright) for substantial damages - nearly £300,000.
Emma Jones, the partner at Leigh Day who assisted Mr Wright in his professional negligence claim said:
“This ruling is important as it establishes that if individuals hold themselves out as competent legal advisers they will be held to the standards of a competent legal advisor and if they do not reach those standards, they can be liable.
We hope this sends warning shot out to any other businesses or individuals who are acting in this manner that they will be held to account for the risks and losses they expose their clients to through their incompetence”
In my professional negligence practice, I have frequently had to face litigants in person who have been on the receiving end of wrong advice from their unqualified advisers. Occasionally, those McKenzie Friends have attempted to access courtrooms and address judges when they do not have higher rights of audience. They frequently jeopardise their own client’s cases. In one memorable episode, the police had to be called to remove a McKenzie Friend from the courtroom because he refused to sit down.
In another recent case that I handled for the Bar Pro Bono Unit (now Advocate), a Claimant had been given bad advice by a self-styled “Lord Grayson” of “Grayson’s Legal” - who then promptly fled the country without obtaining any relief for his unfortunate clients. Like Mr Rusz, he had provided his services on headed paper and with all the stylistic accoutrements of a proper law firm with members who had regulated qualifications.
It is heartening to know that those who seek to deceive vulnerable individuals will now be responsible for their actions.
More details of the case can be found here: https://www.legalfutures.co.uk/latest-news/unregulated-adviser-held-to-same-standard-as-qualified-lawyer