Legal Lookalikes

There are a growing number of quasi-legal services out there for litigants in person involved in family proceedings, and it is no surprise that many of them are advertised via the internet. I come across them increasingly frequently and they come in varying degrees of professionalism: from the ramshackle campaigning group with a few seasoned volunteers who act as McKenzies to the more savvy and commercially minded outfit with a slick website and a price tag.

.

Today I came across this one: Family Law Decisions. It’s a professional looking and streamlined website and I have no reason to think they do not match up to the promises set out there, or that they mislead in any way. But there are key differences between what you can expect from a non-legal support service of this kind and from a lawyer or law firm.

.

Services like these tread very close to the dividing line between non-legal advice and support on the one hand, and legal advice and representation on the other. There are risks in my view, of obtaining legal services from non-lawyers. And when one scrutinises this and other similar services this is at heart what is offered. First hand experience does not necessarily equip one to provide impartial and legally sound advice. Emotional over-involvement can make for poor judgment: empathy is intoxicating for both client and adviser.

.

Family Law Decisions website offers the following services:

  • Guidance on options
  • McKenzie friend in Court
  • Drafting documents (identified as pleadings, skeleton arguments, submissions)
  • Lay advocacy
  • Advice on procedure and law [my italics]

Wait a second: didn’t it take me three years of postgraduate training and years of on the job practise to get good at just those things? That someone would hold themselves out as competent in the skills listed above without any formal training makes me a teensy bit anxious. Without a shadow of a doubt, had I tried to carry out my job without undergoing training and shadowing (pupillage) I would have made a right old b*lls up of it, to use the vernacular.

.

Family Law Decisions is not unique in packaging itself in this way, as a range of services offered by non-lawyers, but I use it as an example. For the provision of these services they charge £40 per hour. Nice work if you can get it I say: it compares quite favourably with the rates of pay for legal representation by qualified lawyers on legal aid.

.

Does it matter if the person helping you with your case  is not a lawyer? Perhaps. There is a fine line here. Under the Legal Services Act 2007 it is an offence to carry out reserved legal activities unless you are authorised or exempt. The conduct of litigation and exercise of rights of audience are so reserved. But, under the Act there is no regulation of the provision of the services listed above (they don’t seem to fall into the definition of ‘conduct of litigation’) and it is not an offence to provide them (Where a judge gives a McKenzie a right of audience in a particular case they are exempt). So there is no legal obstacle to say Family Law Decisions should not operate in this way on an unregulated basis -i.e. without scrutiny from the Law Society, Bar Council, LSB, Ombudsman – nobody.

.

I’m not knocking the valuable assistance McKenzies provide many who cannot afford a lawyer or who are ineligible for legal aid. But if you can pay £40 per hour for unqualified advice, unqualified representation (which might not be permitted on the day) and for the drafting of legal submissions and other documents by unqualified persons well – why not spend that £40 an hour on proper legal representation?

.

The answer for some lies in their lack of faith in the legal profession – steer clear of lawyers at all costs, they are crooks (or so it goes). But think about it: If your solicitor or barrister provides an inadequate professional service or is negligent you can pursue that via a claim, safe in the knowledge that their mandatory professional indemnity insurance will not leave you high and dry and / or via the relevant regulator. What happens if your unqualified lay representative, adviser or draftsperson messes up? Yep, have fun with pursuing redress there.

.

And think about this.  Family Law Decisions says in its FAQ section that:

I want to limit or stop the other parent spending time with our children, will you help me?

No (generally). We passionately believe in doing what is best for children. Research supports our view that shared parenting or near is best for children. Unless there are proven or likely to be proven risks of harm to children we will not assist in limiting or stopping children’s time with another parent. See our Children page for further explanation of shared parenting.

All fine and dandy – such a policy is their prerogative and it is clearly set out on their website for all to see. So fine and dandy – if you happen to share that ethos. And if you can persuade them of the risks of harm to the children. What if they don’t like the cut of your jib or just don’t believe you? What if you decide half way through a case that you can no longer support shared parenting for your child  – will they leave you high and dry? There is no cab rank rule to stop them picking the cases they fancy and the section 188 Legal Services Act 2007 duty to the court to act with independence in the interests of justice does not apply. No legal training and no ethical training either. None of which means they will act in any way inappropriately, but the point is that you have no safeguards to ensure that they do. If you are happy to rely on a few testimonials that’s your risk to take.

.

The positive potential is for a client whose case fits well with the ethos of the organisation, to enjoy a wholly supportive experience from people who will go that extra mile to support the principle in question, where solicitors with an eye on questions of cost benefit and means / merits tests would wave goodbye. But there is limited legal protection for you if your experience is less than satisfactory.

.

Lest there be any misunderstanding, I’m not being critical of the service provided by this particular organisation, but it is important to think before engaging the services of non-lawyers – especially if this is on a ‘paid for’ basis – about the reduced protection and lack of formal training and regulation may mean. It might look like a cheap way of achieving an approximation of legal advice and representation, but as outlined above it is in some respects very very different.

.

Be aware that if you are engaging an organisation with an agenda, such as the agenda for shared parenting referred to by Family Law Decisions, there is a risk that your interests as client may be subjugated to the pursuit of the agenda. And whilst many McKenzies are undoubtedly experienced, articulate, and forceful negotiators, I would be wondering if at £40 p/h I was paying for the provision of a professional service or a campaign levy.

.

I know that there are many litigants out there who have had or expect a poor service from lawyers or the family justice system (see for example my previous post on Solicitors from Hell) and I am alive to the suspicion and distrust with which we are often regarded. Sometimes that is because a client has had a genuinely poor service. But my distinctly non-legal advice is this: enlist the support of non-lawyers by all means but do go into it with your eyes open. It’s not necessarily an antidote to the perceived corruption of lawyers or the system in which we work. And at £40 p/h it could burn a hole in your pocket worthy of any aspiring fat cat.

7 thoughts on “Legal Lookalikes

  1. Ask anyone looking for a decent solicitor in this country and you will find it hard to find one who does his or her job in the best interests of the client.
    I have seen the injustice over and over in family court cases re domestic violence- not even deemed a crime and the victims loosing their children to forced adoption for daring to break free.

    Law and Justice are not the same and patriarchial system generally deals in law- twisting words to suit Just Us.

    The service users have had enough of being played like idiots by the legal profession and now turn to others- who do not swear allegience to the BAR etc…..rather than to the service users.

    Anyone with eyes to see saw the Goddess of Justice in 2007 showing the future of the justice system and its fall- in the same way as the Catholic church fell.

    Those with eyes can also see the thousands seeking justice as they suffer legal abuse syndrome, because the justice they once believed in no longer exists.

  2. Unfortunately both solicitors and barristers who represent parents wishing to oppose social services in the family courts and recover their children are rightly known as “professional losers!”.
    They inevitably advise clients to “go along with social services” and all will end happily,but it doesn’t !…………
    Time and again mothers whose newborn babies and young children have been taken for “risk of emotional abuse” are told not to oppose interim care orders and even told to wait patiently outside the court with no need to speak because their barrister would do that for them !
    This way bewildered mothers often lose their children to forced adoption without saying a word in court.
    The question is why employ lawyers who do not fight for you and earn a substantial fee for surrendering your children without a struggle?
    It is better to appear as litigants in person ,as they are usually the only ones who sometimes manage to defeat social servicesi n the family courts,often assisted by a friend of the family who will often act unpaid as a Mckenzie friend.

    • Sadly it doesn’t happen often, but we do succeed in getting children returned or from stopping babies being taken away when social services want to remove them. I can think of two cases in the last three weeks where I or a colleague have prevented a baby being taken away from its mother. I would almost always advise making use of a parent’s right to a lawyer in care proceedings where the stakes are so high.

  3. Dear familoo,

    Thank you for the unsolicited mention of Family Law Decisions Ltd on your blog and the quite reasonable way you have approached your post.

    I would like to clarify some points which may be of assistance to you and your readers.

    1. We do not provide legal services but offer support and lay advice.

    2. A QC Circuit Judge at the PRFD Holborn in a judgment wrote “excellent submissions”. Exemplary and impeccable have been words used by two different Lord Justice’s regarding our McKenzie Friends. At other levels of the family division our McKenzie Friends are regularly thanked for our assistance to the Court.

    3. The vast majority of our clients have previously been involved with lawyers but because of relatively high costs or they are not satisfied with their solicitors and/or barristers or they want to try the Litigant in Person route, they approach Mckenzie Friends such as us for assistance. They do not generally qualify for Legal Aid.

    4. £40 p/h compares favourably to many solicitors / barristers who charge three to eight times that per hour or higher. £120 inclusive for 2 hours at Kingston CC or £160.00 for the PRFD Holborn are examples of our costs. Of course we are not lawyers but our assistance proves invaluable to our clients generally.

    5. Each Family Law Decisions Ltd Mckenzie Friend has Professional Indemnity Insurance up to £1,000,000.00 in the unlikely event of a claim.

    6. We are Shared Parenting specialists and anyone accessing our lay services will be fully aware of our ethos. We are not lawyers so are fortunate in that we do not have to assist parents who are recalcitrant about parenting time. We believe this ethical approach suits us and our clients. They know we are not supporting clients who want to minimise or stop the child/ren from having a relationship with the other loving, responsible parent.

    7. There is no campaign levy and no agenda except to do the best we can for parents and their children as they view it.

    Thank You

  4. dear familoo, you are rightly concerned that some of the paralegal websites out there offering support to litigants in person in family proceedings may be sailing very close to the wind in relation to reserved legal activities (although i make no comment concerning family law decisions ltd – i have not seen their website). good news, however – not all such websites are unregulated. we are a firm of specialist family law solicitors which has launched a website named http://www.justdivorce.co.uk. justdivorce.co.uk helps litigants in person to obtain their own undefended divorce online, and offers other services such as financial clean break orders etc over the internet. we believe the site offers the best of both worlds, namely professional levels of expertise and service, but at a fraction of the cost charged by solicitors on “traditional” hourly rates. if clients do want the comfort and additional support of a fully retained solicitor we can provide that too, without farming work out for commission.
    solicitors and indeed barristers need to react to and compete in the brave new world of legal services provision by finding new ways to deliver advice. the internet is now the obvious starting point.

    • difficult for the average consumer to tell apart one type of entity from the other though I think…or at least for them to recognise the significance of those distinctions.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *