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Lord Hamilton tells Parliament ‘Scots too ignorant to know what a McKenzie Friend is’ as Holyrood petition & consumer groups criticised over court assistance reforms

26 Apr

Lord Hamilton 2Scotland’s Lord President Lord Hamilton. The embarrassingly long one year debate on how to formally introduce McKenzie Friends (non-lawyer courtroom assistants) to Scotland’s courts took another turn today as it emerged, LORD HAMILTON, Scotland’s top judge has told the Scottish Parliament he does not believe in using the term “McKenzie Friend” in a Scottish court, alleging that unrepresented Scots court users are too ignorant of ‘legal language’ and the courts system they would have no idea what a McKenzie Friend actually is.

Lord Hamilton’s letter to Holyrood’s Petitions Committee (pdf), dated 22 April 2010, one day after the Committee had asked the Lord President for responses to points raised in last Tuesday’s Petitions Committee hearing, rounded on everyone in the McKenzie Friend debate, and went onto heavily criticise consumer organisations, law reform campaigners and even the petitioner, Mr Stewart MacKenzie for raising points of doubt over the Lord President’s somewhat overly protective plans announced in February, to introduce an Act of Sederunt to formally allow McKenzie Friends to operate in the Scottish courts.

Lord Hamilton is thought to have been angry his ‘evidence’ in written form to the Scottish parliament has been widely criticised & pulled apart for misrepresenting many aspects of the McKenzie Friends debate, which has led to criticisms of the Lord President during last week’s hearing of the Petitions Committee for being overly protective of the courts system. You can watch video coverage of last week’s Petitions Committee hearing on McKenzie Friends HERE and earlier coverage of the McKenzie Friend issue at InjusticeTV

Lord President to Scottish Parliament 22 April 2010 McKenzie Friends 03Lord Hamilton – Scots wont know what a McKenzie Friend is. Lord Hamilton in a terse response to Holyrood’s Petitions Committee said : “Both Which and the petitioner have concerns about non-use of the expression “McKenzie Friend”. With due respect, it is the substance of the proposals which is important rather than the name used and the real question is whether they deliver the right result. It is my view that a colloquial expression such as “McKenzie Friend” is not appropriate for the Rules of Court. It is an example of the sort of “legal language” (as so described by Consumer Focus Scotland), inaccessible to the wider public, which the courts are often criticized for using. It has to be borne in mind that most unrepresented litigants are coming to the court system without previous experience of it: it is in my view to be doubted that they would know what a “McKenzie Friend” is; but they might well be able to guess what a “lay assistant” might be and be stimulated to make further enquiries.”

The increasingly bitter debate, marking the Scottish legal system’s miserable attempt to bring McKenzie Friends to Scotland’s courts compares negatively to the swift court judgement in the 1970 McKenzie v McKenzie court case in England, which established the right to use a McKenzie Friend court helper in English courts, a facility now used by unrepresented party litigants in many international jurisdictions.

MSPs Parliament JudgeWhat took an English court one judgement forty years ago to achieve is taking Scotland’s combined legal & political figures more than a year with no end in sight. The year long peculiarly Scottish version of introducing McKenzie Friends, has so far seen the involvement of no less than two Scottish Government Cabinet Ministers, Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill and the Community Safety Minister Fergus Ewing, several meetings of the Scottish Parliament’s Petitions Committee dating back to April 2009, a November 2009 ruling in the Court of Session by judge Lord Woolman who allowed Scotland’s first Civil Law McKenzie Friend, the involvement of Scotland’s two top judges, the Lord Justice Clerk Lord Gill – who supports the introduction of McKenzie Friends via his Civil Courts Review and the Lord President of the Courts Lord Hamilton who has claimed at various stages of the debate McKenzie Friend style ‘lay assistance’ has always existed in Scotland despite no record of it being able to be produced by the Scottish Courts Service, has left Scots in general, and many unrepresented party litigants no further forward in seeing a clear set of rules on how McKenzie Friends can be used in the Scottish Courts.

Law Society of ScotlandLaw Society of Scotland oppose McKenzie Friends on grounds of lost business for solicitors. Also of note to the debate on McKenzie Friends, is the Law Society of Scotland’s opposition to the entire concept of unrepresented party litigants having the facility of non-lawyer courtroom assistance. The Law Society and the Faculty of Advocates are apparently more worried McKenzie Friends & other access to justice reforms from Lord Gilll’s Civil Courts Review will impact on business for their members while losing the legal profession their long held control over who among us actually gets into court.

Lord President to Scottish Parliament 22 April 2010 McKenzie Friends 02Lord Hamilton – relevant to know something about the McKenzie Friend. Addressing the issue of the ‘certificate’ which Lord Hamilton wants any potential McKenzie Friend to sign prior to their appearance in Court, a move criticised by consumer groups and also addressed by the HMCS (Her Majesty’s Court Service, England & Wales) as being informal rather than compulsory, the Lord President told the Scottish Parliament in his letter : “The purpose of asking for such information is simply to provide the judge with information which may be of assistance in considering the application, and in considering any application which might subsequently be made for the permission to be revoked. It is not envisaged that applications would often be opposed, or that applications would often be made for the permission to be revoked. In the event that such a question were to arise, however, it would be relevant to know something about the McKenzie Friend.”

Lord Hamilton continued : “The fact that someone is related to the applicant would be a factor favouring allowing him to act as a McKenzie Friend, as would the fact that he was a neighbour or a friend. But the absence of any relationship would not of course mean that the application would be refused. The fact that someone had experience which was relevant to his or her providing assistance in court (e.g. as a lawyer, a trade union official or a CAB worker) would also be taken into account, but would not be essential.”

“The provision of such information would also assist the court in protecting vulnerable members of the public from the possibility of lay people who do not have relevant experience but who enjoy participating in court proceedings holding themselves out as providers of legal services.”

Lord Hamilton went on to inform the Parliament the latest version of the guidance on McKenzie Friends for England & Wales advises that the proposed McKenzie Friend should furnish the Court with a short CV or other statement setting out relevant experience. He claimed the Scottish proposals seek only to achieve a similar result in a slightly different way, although as documents from the English court authorities confirm the CV aspect of the guidance is ‘not as compulsory’ as what is intended for implementation in Scotland.

The Lord President conceded some amendments to how the McKenzie Friend issue is handled in Scottish courts may be necessary. He commented : “In light of what is said by Consumer Focus Scotland, I can see that further steps may be appropriate to ensure that judges are approaching applications for McKenzie Friends in the right way. Ultimately, these may be matters which need to be resolved by decided cases and the establishment of a coherent body of law. In any event, I can assure the Committee that I would intend to keep the matter under review with a view to making any adjustments of the rules, or issuing any guidance, which seems necessary.”

Lord Hamilton indicated in his letter to the Petitions Committee, he could still deal with the matter by way of introducing McKenzie Friends to Scottish courts via his proposed Act of Sederunt, to be discussed at the Court of Session Rules Council meeting on May 10 2009, although noting Consumer Focus Scotland had suggested it would be preferable to proceed using primary legislation to set out the general principles surrounding the use of a McKenzie Friend and then to let the Rules of Court complete the detail. He asked the Petitions Committee if he should defer any further consideration of the matter on his part until progress became clear on the issue.

In a somewhat ambiguous conclusion, Lord Hamilton appeared to give preference to the idea of using the legislative process as indicated by a recent announcement from the Scottish Government of an amendment to Stage two of the Legal Services Bill, for the introduction of McKenzie Friends to Scottish courts.

Lord President to Scottish Parliament 22 April 2010 McKenzie Friends 04Lord Hamilton – legislation may be needed on McKenzie Friends. Lord Hamilton concluded : “The evidence from Consumer Focus Scotland appears to suggest that it would be preferable to proceed in some respects by way of guidance rather than court rules. It notes that this is the situation in England and Wales. This is not entirely correct: in England and Wales, the guidance is descriptive of a long line of decided cases on the subject. In Scotland, no such long line of decided cases exists. In order to ensure that there is an absolutely sure foundation for McKenzie Friends in Scotland, it is in my view preferable to render those principles into legislative form.”

So there we have it, the Scottish Judiciary, the Scottish legal establishment, the Scottish Courts, the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament couldn’t manage in over a year what one London court managed in one judgement in a divorce action over forty years ago in 1970. If there is any indication our Scottish legal system needs much more than reforming .. probably a whole reboot, then this must be one of those perfect examples to show how far the rot goes, and what must be done to repair it.

McKenzie Friends – We Scots are allegedly too ignorant to know what they are, but we are not necessarily too ignorant to be forced to stump up tens of thousands of pounds to lawyers, advocates & legal teams in the Court of Session for stringing out even the most simplest of cases to years or even decades long appearances with no clear result for clients, other than huge fees for the legal profession. An unfair system of access to justice, if ever there was one. Shame on those who preserve it. They have no standards, no decency.

You can read my earlier coverage of the campaign to bring McKenzie Friends to Scotland, here : McKenzie Friends for Scotland : The story so far

All written submissions for the McKenzie Friend petition at the Scottish Parliament can be read here : Written submissions for Petition 1247, McKenzie Friends for Scotland

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