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Lord Chief Justice concerned about LiPs and paid McKenzie friends

Lord Thomas questions whether withdrawal of legal aid is exacerbating private law disputes

The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Thomas, has raised concerns about the prevalence of litigants in person and paid McKenzie friends in the litigation process.

At his annual press conference, when asked by Jane Croft of the Financial Times whether there was a problem with litigants in person, particularly in the Court of Appeal, Lord Thomas said:

"Yes, it is a problem across the entire system. … The problem is we have now far too many. In the Court of Appeal, the cases take up much longer. We have taken steps to try and deal with them by… particularly people who have huge quantities of paper and bring them along and we have a very valuable core of judicial assistants. Where the real problems lie, I think, are in the family courts. One of the things that is concerning us, and I think the concern has arisen recently, is the withdrawal of legal aid and legal assistance from private law family disputes. If you have a dispute about the children, it is obviously desirable that this is settled as soon as possible. There was a move to do more mediation but the difficulty with mediation is that unless you have someone who says, "Yes, the judge won't say anything different to the mediator," if someone has lost, they feel, "Well, why shouldn't we press on?" or they try and solve the thing themselves and what is beginning to emerge, and we need to study this in much more detail, is: is the withdrawal of legal aid causing a problem in resolving dispute between father and mother about the children. There is some evidence to indicate that attempts to settle these issues between the father and the mother exacerbate the problem in some cases and a dispute that is exacerbated takes more time to solve in the end. Whether the answer is legal aid or what they do in California, which is to provide a service where there is a lawyer at the court who can speak to both parties, I do not know, but everything thought that the numbers had dropped, everything was well. The numbers of cases are now rising again and we need seriously… this is a real problem and it is a problem for society which needs detailed examination."

He also expressed concerns in respect paid McKenzie friends, albeit in relation to crime and immigration proceedings. He said:

"I think paid McKenzie friends introduces a prospect of having yet another part of a professional who is coming in to help litigants. One has to bear in mind, and I have seen this both in crime and in immigration, that someone who is under threat of removal or is accused of a serious crime is extremely vulnerable and it is very easy for someone to say, 'Come on, I can help you.' There was Mr … who was convicted, so I think I can safely say he is an illustration of it. There were others who help in immigration, I have seen them, who give legal advice that is simply wrong and you are preying on vulnerable people and that is why I am very, very cautious about payment to non-lawyers who try and assist vulnerable people. There is a real risk of exploitation or of giving advice the person wants to hear, not advice that they do not want to hear."

To read a transcript of the full press conference, click here.