Battle to bring McKenzie Friends to Scotland continues as Holyrood investigates ‘access to justice’ proposals

08 May

Scots parliamentPetitions Committee told McKenzie Friends proposals must be supported. Earlier this week the Scottish Parliament’s Petitions Committee was told that ending a 39 year peculiarly Scottish ban on assisted public access to justice in the Scottish Courts by allowing the facility of McKenzie Friends, would greatly enhance the legal rights & success of many members of the public who find themselves facing legal action or require the use of the Justice system but for whatever circumstances are applicable to their predicament, cannot afford or obtain legal representation to further their access to the courts.

Petition PE1247 – Bringing McKenzie Friends to Scotland, with support from Margo MacDonald MSP.

margo macdonaldMargo MacDonald stepped in to support McKenzie Friends Petition. Petition PE1247 : McKenzie Friends for Scotland, was admirably supported by Scotland’s independent MSP, Margo MacDonald, who told the Committee that in civil courts, such as small debts & other cases, people can find it impossible to obtain legal representation, finding they end up in court having to represent themselves.

Speaking on the merits of McKenzie friends, Margo MacDonald went on to tell the Committee that in England & Wales, the system of McKenzie Friends had operated successfully for 39 years where individuals who cannot access legal services through a variety of reasons, can obtain the services of a McKenzie Friend, who can assist them during their court appearances where difficulties with legal procedure and other matters can lead an individual to be put at a considerable disadvantage when unrepresented by legal counsel.

robin harperRobin Harper MSP supports McKenzie Friends as common sense idea. Robin Harper MSP, of the Scottish Green Party, was first to support the McKenzie Friends petition, calling the proposal “such an obviously good idea & common sense idea that we must continue it and we should ask the Scottish Government directly whether it will introduce a McKenzie Friend facility in Scottish Courts and if not, why not, and will this matter be part of the 8th program of law reform to be held by the Scottish Law Commission”.

nigel_donNigel Don MSP is Kenny MacAskill’s Parliamentary Liason Officer. Nigel Don MSP entered the debate by informing the Petitions Committee that the introduction of the McKenzie Friend facility south of the border, “was not brought in by the British Government, rather it was simply allowed” after it went to the Court of Appeal, this in reference to the original ‘McKenzie Friend’ case which started the whole concept, where an Australian, Ian Hanger QC, at the time, a Barrister, became involved in a case in the London courts, but whose qualifications in law in Australia did not allow him to practise as a barrister in London.

Ian Hanger was sent the brief by the firm of solicitors, Geoffrey Gordon & Co for McKenzie one day prior to the hearing. McKenzie was unable to afford legal assistance, didn’t qualify for legal aid, and had not maintained consistent contact with Gordon. Hanger sat with his client to provide what quiet assistance he could from the bar table to a man representing himself. The trial judge asked Mr Hanger to desist from doing what he was doing and this became the basis of the appeal by Gordon against the judgment against McKenzie.

Mr Don went on in the debate to say he felt it was open to the court simply to allow McKenzie Friends in Scotland, and that a ‘nod from the Lord President’ following Lord Gill’s soon to be released review of the Civil Courts system might be the way to go rather than the Parliament going through the legislation process to allow MFs to Scotland.

However, Margo MacDonald responded to Nigel Don’s remarks by making clear that something more substantial needs to be done on the issue in Scotland simply because of the 17 year time lags in Scotland in implementing the likes of Sections 25-29, and with the incredible 39 year gap between Scotland & the rest of the UK on the issue of McKenzie Friends it is time for action.

Lord HamiltonLord Hamilton could give nod & wink to initiate McKenzie Friends but most feel political legislation is required. Certainly from my own experience in matters of law reform, I feel there must be a legislative process began on the issue of the introduction of McKenzie Friends in Scotland, given there has been such resistance to any access to justice reforms by the Scottish legal establishment, some examples of which are the 17 year restriction on small claims limits in the Scottish Courts, to some £750, where the rest of the UK had limits of £5,000 and of course, the 17 year lack of implementation of Sections 25-29 of the Law Reform (Misc Provisions) (Scotland) Act 1990, where Scotland’s ‘access to justice’ legislation was kept off the books by an arrogant campaign from the legal establishment, bent on maintaining market monopoly over the public’s access to legal services in Scotland.

Given the decades of delay in legal reforms in Scotland, can we trust the issue of McKenzie Friends to a nod & a wink from the Lord President, no matter how well intentioned it may be ? I feel not.

McKenzie Friends must be looked into by the Parliament, with at least an inquiry taking place, and ultimately questions being asked and answered as to why McKenzie Friends have been excluded from the Scottish Courts system for 39 years.

In an update to the McKenzie Friend proposal, Margo MacDonald asked a question of the Scottish Justice Secretary, Kenny MacAskill during yesterday’s question time : Margo MacDonald: To ask the Scottish Executive whether it will introduce the practice of allowing a McKenzie’s friend into law courts. (S3O-6781)

Margo MacDonald’s question to Kenny MacAskill on McKenzie Friends for Scotland brought a dithering response from the Justice Secretary, who seemed to be playing for time ahead of Lord Gill’s Civil Justice review.

There is little doubt after watching the following extract of proceedings, that Mr MacAskill is not minded to reform access to justice by any measure of the term.

In response to Margo MacDonald, Justice Secretary MacAskill struggles with delay in mind ahead of Lord Gill’s Civil Justice review.

MacAskill tight lippedDithering Kenny MacAskill needs more than a push to bring in McKenzie Friends.After having watched Mr MacAskill’s response to Margo MacDonald’s question, I am convinced more than ever that Parliament must look into the issue of McKenzie Friends, hold an investigation and enact legislation which will ensure that McKenzie Friends be allowed in Scotland’s courts, because without a doubt, if it is left to the legal establishment, McKenzie Friends will never come to Scotland, just as access to justice reforms will never come to Scotland unless someone outside the legal fraternity talks about it, raises the issue publicly and gets Parliament to do something – just as we all found with the Legal Profession & Legal Aid (Scotland) Act 2007.

Ian Hanger QC, speaking on the issue to the Scotsman newspapers said regarding the Scottish Parliament’s hearing of the McKenzie Friend Petition that he “would love to address them on the virtues of the McKenzie Friend.”

On asking Ian Hanger QC as to the merits of McKenzie friends, he said : “In our Federal Court the Act dealing with the judiciary under the Constitution is the Judiciary Act. S 55 prohibits representation other than by barristers and solicitors.The Federal Court therefore regard the McKenzie Friend as a useful adjunct to the court process.

Mr Hanger went on : “Once again, I spoke today to the most senior Federal Court judge in our State and he said that overall McKenzie Friends have been very useful. He said that there are cases where the litigant cannot afford a barrister or solicitor and the judge does not think that it is appropriate to ask the profession to act in the particular case on a pro bono basis (as it can do). Of course there will be McKenzie Friends who step out of line, but the judge has the power to do what the judge did to me – prevent the person sitting at the bar table with the litigant.”

On that note, I would think the support and testimony of the original McKenzie Friend, Ian Hanger QC, must be extremely beneficial to the McKenzie Friend petition itself and the rights of all Scots to further their entitlements of access to justice & legal services. I have therefore asked the Scottish Parliament Petitions Committee to ask Mr Hanger to speak on the merits of McKenzie Friends, as a matter of importance to the debate.


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