The withdrawal of legal aid in many family cases has meant that volunteer groups such as the McKenzie friend scheme are becoming increasingly popular.
Plans are under way to create new advice centres where law students will assist divorcing couples by guiding them through the divorce process.
The scheme is to be introduced as part of the changes to the family court system that came into force last week.
Legal aid is no longer available in divorce cases which means that almost half of all couples going through a divorce do so without any legal representation. People are increasingly looking to volunteer legal services such as this new student scheme and the McKenzie friend scheme.
Under the new plans trainee lawyers will be there to ‘hold the hands’ of divorcing couples, and ‘reduce confrontations across the floor of the court’.
Liberal Democrat family justice minister Simon Hughes said: ‘We need to try to sort out the issues for people before they go through the door of the court.’
The new plans include creating centres around the country which will be run by law students and volunteers. People will be able to approach these centres for assistance and advice on what to expect during their divorce and how best to proceed.
The Legal Services Consumer Panel (LSCP) announced this week that McKenzie friends should be allowed to charge fees. At the moment many are volunteers who are not necessarily legally trained and do not charge fees.
However, as demand for their services increase, more McKenzie friends are charging for their services. These fee-charging McKenzie friends, who provide courtroom support to unrepresented litigants in person, should be recognised as providing a valuable service, the independent watchdog LSCP has recommended.
The consumer panel’s report says: “There are reports of a rise in fee-charging McKenzie friends aiming to meet the needs of litigants who are no longer eligible for legal aid funding but cannot afford legal representation.”
“Litigation through the courts on a family matter can be expensive and beyond the means of a great many individuals. Added to this is the withdrawal of legal aid funding, while ‘matrimonial disputes’ tend to be excluded from most legal expenses insurance policies. Therefore, for those who cannot afford legal representation, the real choice is between using a McKenzie friend or being entirely unsupported during proceedings.”
The panel recommends that: “Fee-charging McKenzie friends should be recognised as a legitimate feature of the evolving legal services market [but that] … automatic rights of audience should not be granted to McKenzie friends.”
Typical fees charged by a McKenzie friend range from £35-60 per hour and £150-200 per day. Some McKenzie friends are reportedly earning as much as £100,000 per year.