‘It’s not appropriate’: Top judge expresses concern over McKenzie friends after hearing criminal appeals prepared by law students

Avatar photo

By Thomas Connelly on

Two of the applications received legal support from students at Northumbria University and BPP Law School

A top judge has said she’s very concerned about the use of McKenzie friends, after she heard a number of unsuccessful criminal appeal cases which received support from law students.

In a ruling published earlier this week, Lady Justice Hallett stated that the term ‘McKenzie friend’ — non-qualified persons who assist litigants — “is not appropriate in the Court of Appeal Criminal Division (CACD).”

Hallet, vice-president of the CACD, called for clearer guidance on the matter and suggested that terms such as “applicant’s friend” or “applicant’s helper” might well be more appropriate. She said:

The court will only allow a non-qualified third party to address the court in exceptional circumstances, and this will be decided on a case-by-case basis. If the registrar has exceptionally granted permission for a non‑qualified third party to act as a litigator, it does not follow that the court will also grant the third party a right of audience. It will only do so in exceptional circumstances.

The top judge made the comments after hearing four renewed applications for leave to appeal against conviction that had been listed together because each defendant had been assisted by a non-qualified third party.

The ruling in R v Conaghan & Ors reveals that one defendant received support from a “McKenzie type friend,” while another was assisted by his wife. Interestingly, the remaining two defendants received legal assistance from law students at Northumbria University and BPP Law School’s Criminal Appeal Project, respectively.

Both sets of law students had arranged for barristers to represent their clients in court on a pro bono basis, however BPP’s counsel was unable to attend and applications for adjournment were refused. Continuing her assault on McKenzie friends, Hallett said:

Third parties with a personal interest in the proceedings, or with a cause they wish to advance, or simply with the best of intentions, have presented totally unmeritorious applications. They have thereby raised the hopes of an applicant, taken up a very considerable amount of time and resources of the court, and put an applicant at risk of a loss of time order.

She duly rejected all four applications for leave to appeal. A spokesperson for Northumbria University told Legal Cheek:

The Student Law Office at Northumbria University provides pro bono legal advice and representation to members of the public in a number of legal areas including criminal appeals. The students conduct the work under the constant supervision of a qualified and practising solicitor or barrister with the requisite competence in the relevant field. We work closely with external counsel where necessary and in this case obtained the opinion of external counsel. At the hearing in question we ensured that the client was represented by expert counsel on a pro bono basis.

BPP Law School declined to comment.

Hallett’s comments come just weeks after a University of Westminster law student launched a website that allows litigants-in-person (LIPs) to hire out wannabe lawyers for as much as £100 a day.

‘McKenzie Friends Marketplace’ aimed to match law students wanting to gain hands-on legal experience with members of the public who are unable to afford the services of a fully-qualified lawyer. However, just days later and following a wave of criticism, the site’s creator, Fraser Matcham, was forced to ban “active students” from giving legal advice as part of the scheme.

Read the ruling in full below:

For all the latest commercial awareness info, and advance notification of Legal Cheek’s careers events, sign up to the Legal Cheek Hub here.