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First use of McKenzie Friend in Scotland as Court of Session sweeps aside 40 years of lawyers monopoly over public access to justice

26 Nov

Lord WoolmanLord Woolman granted Scotland’s first Civil Law McKenzie Friend request FORTY YEARS after McKenzie Friends were first introduced to UK courts as a result of the 1970 McKenzie v McKenzie decision which set a legal precedent for court users in England & Wales to request and receive the invaluable assistance of a McKenzie Friend, Scotland’s Court of Session has finally, albeit grudgingly fallen into line with the rest of the country and many international jurisdictions by granting what many say is the first successful request for a McKenzie Friend to appear in Scotland’s civil courts.

The unexpected turn of events in the Court of Session last Tuesday, 17th November 2009 saw the sitting judge, Lord Woolman allow the attendance of Scotland’s first ever McKenzie Friend in a long running civil damages action which named Motherwell College, North Lanarkshire Council & Edinburgh Law firm Simpson & Marwick as defenders. The case, a medical injury claim recently heard ‘potentially explosive allegations’ against the College from the witness box.

A spokeswoman for the Scottish Courts Service confirmed the first use of a McKenzie Friend in Scotland, issuing the following brief statement : “I confirm [the party litigant] was allowed to be assisted in the manner associated with the term “McKenzie Friend”. [The litigant’s] supporter was advised by the Court as to the nature of his role and is seated behind [the litigant] in court in the place where an instructing agent (solicitor) would sit.”

The Scottish Courts Service was further asked to confirm this was the first successful use of a McKenzie Friend in a civil damages action in Scotland. However, the SCS said they did not keep such statistics or data, and therefore could not confirm one way or another.

A senior official of one of Scotland’s consumer organisations welcomed Lord Woolman’s decision to allow the use of a McKenzie Friend. He said : “The rights of party litigants in Scotland’s civil courts have been greatly enhanced by Lord Woolman’s decision allowing what we understand to be the first ever use of a McKenzie Friend in a Scottish court. We hope this will be the first of many successful applications to the Scottish courts for the use of McKenzie Friends in cases were consumers have found it difficult or too costly to obtain the services of a solicitor to represent their legal interests.”

However, Lord Woolman’s decision in requiring the McKenzie Friend to ‘sit behind’ the party litigant came in for criticism, due to the fact that in England & Wales, and most international jurisdictions were McKenzie Friends are allowed, the party litigant requesting the advice & assistance of a McKenzie Friend usually find their McKenzie Friend sits beside them, rather than behind them.

A senior barrister from England said today : “I have often attended hearings where McKenzie Friends have assisted party litigants, seated next to them. I have not attended a hearing where an English court has insisted or required that a McKenzie Friend must sit behind their party litigant. Such a seating arrangement would be counterproductive to the litigant who would be put in a position of having to constantly turn around, seeking advice on what to say or asking to see notes taken by the McKenzie Friend. I would think the judge’s patience would fray a little at such a constant head turning prospect, and therefore on that basis I would have to say your Scottish judge got it wrong on who sits where.”

A former party litigant whose experiences were recently reported in a Consumer report on Scotland’s Civil Courts today said : “I found the entire system stacked against me in court and it will come as no surprise I lost. If I had been able to use a McKenzie Friend I might have won my case, or at least come to a settlement but the judge in my case said I could not have a McKenzie Friend. The lawyers laughed at me when I was forced to drop my case and to this day I feel very bitter about it.”

He continued : “Where a Scotsman living in England or Wales, can enter an English court with a right to have a McKenzie Friend by his side to help him in his hour of need, yet a Scotsman living in Scotland asking for the help of a McKenzie Friend will still have to face the discretion of individual courts who may seat his McKenzie Friend miles away to the rear .. is not fair. This lack of fairness has to be put right.”

Lord gillLord Gill recommended McKenzie Friends be introduced in his Civil Courts Review. In the recent Civil Courts Review, conducted by Scotland’s Lord Justice Clerk, Lord Brian Gill recommended that McKenzie Friends should be introduced in Scotland, not only being allowed to sit beside a litigant but also to be granted a right of audience in some circumstances, to speak for litigants. However, Lord Gill’s detailed recommendations on the introduction & application of McKenzie Friends in Scotland’s courts conflicts severely with claims made by the Lord President to Holyrood’s Petitions Committee, where Lord Hamilton claimed that such assistance as provided by McKenzie Friends had always existed in Scotland, when in fact, no recorded use of McKenzie Friends in Scottish Civil Courts has taken place until now, this now confirmed by the Scottish Courts Service itself.

You can read my earlier articles on Lord Gill’s recommendations for the introduction of McKenzie Friends in Scotland, here : Scots Law ‘shake up’ as Lord Gill’s Civil Courts Review supports McKenzie Friends, Class Actions & wider access to justice for all

You can read my earlier reports on the battle to bring McKenzie Friends to Scotland here : McKenzie Friends for Scotland – A battle worthy of a McKenzie Friend

As legal experts in Scotland continue to assess the impact of Lord Woolman’s ruling on McKenzie Friends, and the precedent the decision has now established, the race is now on to set rules and guidance for the Scottish Courts on the general application & acceptance of McKenzie Friends to provide unrepresented party litigants with advice & assistance during court appearances.

A legal insider pointed out today that in England & Wales, as soon as a litigant makes a request to have a McKenzie Friend assist their litigation, the English courts must consider that request on a Human Rights basis, as contained in the Lord President of the Family Division’s guidance to the English Courts, which clearly states :

• When considering any request for the assistance of a McKenzie Friend, the Human Rights Act 1998 Sch 1 Part 1 Article 6 is engaged; the court should consider the matter judicially, allowing the litigant reasonable opportunity to develop the argument in favour of the request.

• The litigant in person should not be required to justify his desire to have a McKenzie Friend ; in the event of objection, it is for the objecting party to rebut the presumption in favour of allowing the MF to attend.

• A favourable decision by the court, allowing the assistance of a McKenzie Friend, should be regarded as final and not as something which another party can ask the court to revisit later, save on the ground of misconduct by the McKenzie Friend or on the ground that the MF’s continuing presence will impede the efficient administration of justice.

What a McKenzie Friend May Do :

• Provide moral support for the litigant
• Take notes
• Help with case papers
• Quietly give advice on : points of law or procedure ; issues that the litigant may wish to raise in court & questions the litigant may wish to ask witnesses.

What a McKenzie Friend May Not Do :

• A McKenzie Friend has no right to act on behalf of a litigant in person. It is the right of the litigant who wishes to do so to have the assistance of a McKenzie Friend.

• A McKenzie Friend is not entitled to address the court, nor examine any witnesses. A McKenzie Friend who does so becomes an advocate and requires the grant of a right of audience.

• A McKenzie Friend may not act as the agent of the litigant in relation to the proceedings nor manage the litigant’s case outside court, for example, by signing court documents.

The full guidance from the Lord President of the Family Division on the use of McKenzie Friends in England & Wales can be downloaded here : President’s Guidance: McKenzie Friends

One of the most important issues with regard to the use of McKenzie Friends in England & Wales, is that when a litigant makes a request for a McKenzie Friend, the request is considered with regard to Article 6 of Human Rights legislation. Currently, this is not the case in Scotland, and as yet, no guidance has been released from the Lord President’s office addressing these issues.

This Human Right of a McKenzie Friend to the unrepresented people across our country must not be separated by the hills of the Scottish Borders, simply on the basis the Scottish legal establishment, and the legal profession feel they will lose control over the courts and perhaps more importantly to them, control over access to justice and law firms profits.

Given the confused and contradictory claims by the Lord President, Lord Hamilton and the Scottish Government in its responses to the McKenzie Friend petition, and Lord Woolman’s following to the letter of Lord Hamilton’s ‘sit behind & far away’ policy, a right and entitlement to a McKenzie Friend in Scottish Law is long overdue and can no longer be allowed to remain ‘in the the gift’ of the Court. Give Scots the right of a McKenzie Friend.

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