McKenzie Friends for Scotland still a way to go as Holyrood seeks clarity from Lord President on guidance, use & entitlements for court users

19 Feb

Lord Hamilton 2Lord President Lord Hamilton. LORD HAMILTON, Scotland’s chief judge is to be asked by Parliament to ensure guidance and information is available to members of the public seeking to use a McKenzie Friend in Scottish Courts, after it emerged today that two months on from Lord Woolman’s Court of Session ruling during November 2009 in Martin Wilson v North Lanarkshire Council & others, granting the first use of a McKenzie Friend in Scotland, members of the public are still being given contradictory from the Courts Service on whether they can or cannot use a McKenzie Friend in a Scottish court.

Currently, there are only two recorded uses of McKenzie Friends in Scotland’s civil courts, with both being forced to ‘sit behind’ the party litigant who requested their help & assistance, and no guidance yet exists on the Scottish Courts Service website or within Scottish court buildings, where litigants can find out how to request and use the services of a McKenzie Friend. Indeed, several reports have come in from individuals claiming many of Scotland’s regional courts know nothing of the McKenzie Friend issue, in some instances court officials claiming McKenzie Friends are not allowed, while others say its possible but not yet written into law.

The Scottish Parliament’s Petitions Committee, during its latest hearing on Petition 1247, McKenzie Friends for Scotland, debated the information provided by the Scottish Government, who claimed that information that a “mechanism of a supportive friend is already available in the Scottish Courts, in most cases, most of the time”, claims which were disputed by the Law Society, the Scottish Courts Service & Consumer Focus Scotland who all referred to the fact a “supportive friend” (a McKenzie Friend) had yet to be introduced to Scotland’s courts.

A Scottish Government insider claimed his colleagues in the Justice Department were reluctant to use the term “McKenzie Friend” as they had been caught short on the issue, after enquiries to the Scottish Courts Service revealed no such “supportive friends” (McKenzie Friends) had ever been used in civil cases in Scotland prior to Lord Woolman’s November ‘09 ruling, this coming after McKenzie Friends have been successfully used in England & Wales, and many other international jurisdictions for forty years.

He said : “There is no doubt about it. This 40 year gap where McKenzie Friends have effectively been kept out of Scotland by successive administrations and the legal profession, looks bad for all concerned. The Justice Secretary and Lord President who started this ‘supportive friend’ business both look a bit foolish for claiming something exists when clearly it does not and never has.”

McKenzie Friends for Scotland debated at Holyrood once more :

margo_macdonaldMargo MacDonald spoke further on McKenzie Friends. At last week’s Holyrood hearings on the McKenzie Friend petition, independent msp Margo MacDonald spoke further on the issue, saying : “The petition and the back-up material are self-evident. An opinion poll has been conducted and, although we should take the results with a pinch of salt, there is a consistent level of support—66 per cent—for the idea of McKenzie friends. We have had word from the bench—from on high—that it has always been open to litigants who defend themselves in Scottish courts, but there does not seem to be one view from the bench on the matter.”

Margo MacDonald then went onto criticise the current regime in the Court of Session, which requires a McKenzie Friend to sit behind the party litigant they are in court to assist. Margo MacDonald said : “The view that figures in our papers has it that “a McKenzie Friend must sit behind” the person in court. That is of no use at all, as anyone knows, because people need someone beside them. It seems a nit-picking point, but it is a matter of whether the support or information that can be given to the person pleading their own case is functional or dysfunctional. I personally think that it is self-evident. We should just do it.”

murdo_fraserMurdo Fraser MSP (Conservative) also attended the hearing in support of the McKenzie Friend petition, commenting on the level of support in Scotland for the introduction & use of McKenzie Friends saying : “I will briefly expand on that. Margo MacDonald has referred to the Which? survey. To be precise, I think that 85 per cent of Scots who were surveyed said that it would be useful to have a scheme whereby those who could not afford or find a lawyer could have a knowledgeable friend sitting beside them—that shows the level of support for the McKenzie friend.”

McKenzie Friends Which researchPetitions Committee heard that a survey from Which? showed 85% support in Scotland for McKenzie Friends. Murdo Fraser went on to criticise responses from Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill on the issue, which apparently avoid explaining the points under discussion. Mr Fraser continued : “I wrote to the Cabinet Secretary for Justice on the matter before Christmas, and I got a reply on 31 December, which considered the idea of legislation to amend the current rules so as to allow lay representatives rights of audience. That misses the point. Mr Mackenzie is not looking for rights of audience for McKenzie friends; he just wants them to have the right to sit beside the litigant in court, not behind them. That is the point that Margo made well. All that requires is a change in the court rules. The procedure is simple, and I am not aware of any serious policy objection to such a change happening—it just needs to happen.”

Clearly, as in England & Wales, McKenzie Friends could easily exist in Scottish courts, with a mere change in the court rules, rather than the elaborate proposals of a legislative amendment to the Legal Services Bill, currently under consideration by the Scottish Parliament. However, as the Scots legal establishment have proved, and are still proving resistive to change, including the introduction of McKenzie Friends as they are used in the rest of the UK, legislation may well be required to ensure the public get the right to use a McKenzie Friend, rather than leaving the issue to be decided at a judges discretion on a case by case basis, which of course, the judges appear to prefer at this time.

Margo MacDonald raised the question of a McKenzie Friend being a right, rather than being left to the judge. Ms MacDonald said : ”As I should have mentioned earlier, there is also some debate as to whether we want the judge to have the determining voice on the matter. Should it be a right? I am not quite sure about that. I cannot see anything about that aspect in the papers that have come back to us.”

nigel_donNigel Don MSP (SNP). Nigel Don, the Parliamentary Liaison to Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill appeared to criticise the Lord President for presenting two meanings of a McKenzie Friend, i.e. the “supportive friend” which has led to much confusion inside & outside the Parliament on this petition. Nigel Don said : “The papers that are before us are interesting, and they demonstrate that certain people have got the wrong end of some sticks. There is clear confusion as to what on earth a McKenzie friend is supposed to be. I thought that the Lord President put it kindly, saying that there are two meanings of the term. Actually, there was only ever one, but some people did not bother to find out what it was before deciding to call it something else. We now have two meanings, and that is not helpful.”

Mr Don continued, attempting to resolve the Lord President’s dual terms on McKenzie friends, saying : “If we go back to the original meaning, which is a friend who sits beside the person in court and helps them through, it is not difficult. I think that the Lord President is saying that he thought there was no reason for the possibility not to be there, but the rest of the papers seem to indicate that it was actually never there. However, that seems to have changed within the past few weeks. We should take it that there has been a step in the right direction, and we should not worry about why exactly that happened. It might be coincident with what is happening with the petition.”

Mr Don continued, saying : “If we can persuade our legal brethren and the gentlemen and ladies on the bench that it would be a good idea for the friend to be allowed to sit beside the party litigant, that would help—as I am sure judges would agree.”

On the subject of the Scottish Government’s proposals to make an amendment to the Legal Services Bill, giving McKenzie Friends a right of audience, Mr Don was less than enthusiastic, indicating the plan may well be dropped in favour of allowing McKenzie Friends to operate in Scotland as they do in all other jurisdictions.

Mr Don said on the rights of audience matter : “We need to be careful in the Parliament not to start telling judges what to do. Parliament has given, and the courts have acknowledged, rights of audience for lawyers. It would be very difficult to start deciding what the rights of audience should be for people who are not qualified as lawyers. It rightly belongs to the judge on the bench to decide what is helpful in that respect and what is not helpful. We must be careful how to phrase any recommendations on that point.”

“The other meaning—or rather, misuse—of “McKenzie friend” involves extended rights of audience for lay folk in certain circumstances. I suggest that, however important that point is, that is not what the petition is about, and it never was about that. That is a substantial issue that will have to be addressed in its own right at some point if we think that it is important to do so. I suggest that we cut that issue off from the clear purpose of the petition.”

bill_butlerBill Butler MSP (Scottish Labour) also supported the drive to allow McKenzie Friends to sit beside their party litigant in court, saying : “I think that we should write to the Scottish Government and to the Lord President of the Court of Session to ask whether they will recommend that McKenzie friends should sit beside, rather than behind, the litigant. Perhaps we can ask them to respond to the petitioner’s concerns about the Court of Session’s lack of awareness of the existence of such a facility. I take Nigel Don’s point that the facility is always at the court’s discretion, and we do not want to tell the Lord President what to do, but it seems that the Lord President is more than amenable to the system. We need to disseminate the information among those who hold court.”

After further suggestions from Margo MacDonald, Murdo Fraser supported the Committee’s intentions of seeking clarity on the McKenzie Friends issue, saying : “Nigel Don made a fair point in suggesting that things seemed to be happening; I would like to think that that is the case. However, it would be better to have some clarity, so that anybody who turns up in court with a friend knows that they will not suddenly be told by the presiding judge, “No, your friend cannot sit beside you—I don’t like the look of him. He will have to sit at the back of the court.” I am inclined to agree with the course of action that Bill Butler proposes.”

The Committee closed, authorising the following Written Questions for Petition 1247 to the Scottish Government & Lord President :

Scottish Government—

Lord President of the Court of Session—

  • The Scottish Government states in its submission (PE1247/S) that the “mechanism of a supportive friend is already available in the Scottish Courts, in most cases, most of the time” however, the submissions from the Civil Justice Committee of the Law Society of Scotland (PE1247/I), the Scottish Court Service (PE1247/K) and Consumer Focus Scotland (PE1247/H) still refer to the introduction of such facility rather than it already existing. Will it/the Lord President therefore encourage a more widespread use of a “McKenzie friend” when appropriate to “assist a party litigant and, with the court’s permission, to address the court”, as recommended in the Lord Gill’s Civil Courts Review and how it will do so ?
  • Will it/the Lord President recommend that such “McKenzie Friend”should sit beside a party litigant and not behind them? If not, why not?
  • What is its/the Lord President’s answer to all the points raised by Murdo Fraser MSP and Margo MacDonald MSP during the discussion?

Lord President of the Court of Session—

  • What is your answer to the concerns of the petitioner (PE1247/V) regarding the lack of awareness of the Court of Session about the existence of such a facility? How will this be addressed and when?
  • Can you confirm that there is a presumption in favour of a “McKenzie friend” to assist a party litigant, unless deemed unsuitable by the Court?

So really this all boils down to getting the seating arrangements in order – just as everyone else in the world enjoys their McKenzie Friend sitting next to them, instead of the peculiarly & utterly useless Scottish solution currently in place where the McKenzie Friend sits behind their party litigant, and of course, ensuring there is a presumption of the right to have a McKenzie Friend assist a litigant, rather than the matter being left at the court’s discretion on a case by case basis.

You can find out more about the English courts guidance on using McKenzie Friends, HERE and read my earlier reports on bringing McKenzie Friends to Scotland, here : McKenzie Friends for Scotland, the story so far

The facility of having a McKenzie Friend by one’s side in court has worked well in the rest of the world for decades. Surely we in Scotland can manage the same, even with the Law Society and Faculty of Advocates still shaking the bananas from the trees in protest ?


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