Which? supports McKenzie Friends in Scotland. In a show of support for the Scots public and advocates of wider access to justice in Scotland, consumer organisations such as Which? and Consumer Focus Scotland, and law reform groups are rallying to support the 'McKenzie Friend' petition I reported on late last week, which is due to be heard at the Scottish Parliament on 5th May 2009.
Diary of Injustice reported earlier on McKenzie Friend petition. As I reported late last week, Mr Stewart MacKenzie, of Perth lodged a petition at the Scottish Parliament “seeking to urge the Scottish Government to introduce a McKenzie Friend facility in Scottish courts as a matter of urgency.” The move is long overdue in Scotland, after it emerged through investigations that McKenzie Friends have been allowed in the English courts for some thirty nine years, while sadly, Scots have been excluded from the ability to utilise the services of a qualified individual at their side during court appearances which might not be possible due to the lack of unrestricted access to legal representation in the Scottish courts system, currently controlled by the Law Society of Scotland.
Which? lodged glowing support for McKenzie Friends at Holyrood Petitions Committee. The letter from Which? is clear in its terms of support for the introduction "as a matter of urgency" of McKenzie Friend facility in Scotland. Julia Clarke, on behalf of Which? writes : "We are concerned that the inability of legal litigants in Scotland to be able to draw upon the support of a 'McKenzie Friend' in court is likely to prove a distinct disadvantage to those unable to find legal representation. The system, as you may know, has successfully operated in England and Wales for many years, allowing those who cannot access legal representation to draw upon the expertise of agencies and individuals who can provide such support. Indeed, McKenzie Friends are routinely permitted and are only denied where the judge believes it is fair or in the interests of justice to do so."
Which? believes a McKenzie Friend would be ‘highly beneficial’ and result in fairer hearings through lack of legal representation in Scotland. Which?, who have campaigned on legal issues for Scots consumers for a number of years, went on in their letter of support to say : "Which? believes that where litigants cannot afford to, or are indeed unable to find, legal representation, the right to use a McKenzie Friend would be highly beneficial and could only result in a fairer hearing and outcome for members of the public in this situation. At the moment we are concerned that individuals are unfairly disadvantaged where they represent themselves in court, but are unable to take a McKenzie Friend with them to help support them during what can be a very difficult experience."
On the subject of the well known difficulties in obtaining legal representation in Scotland, particularly where solicitors exhibit a ‘lack of willingness’ to represent clients interests, Which? added : "Ideally of course, we are keen to ensure people have good legal representation, but in our experience, it is not always possible for litigants to find a lawyer willing to represent them, even where they have a strong case, and many people simply cannot afford legal representation. In such circumstances it is quite inequitable that they should be denied some support and we can see no reason why the Government should not permit this."
"Although some recent improvements have permitted construction litigants this facility, all other legal litigants are currently denied this support, which would improve access to justice and consumer redress in Scotland. Which? is the UK's largest independent consumer organisation, a charity funded by sales of our magazines and other services, and represents the consumer voice on many issues including legal services. We support Mr Mackenzie's petition and ask that you support it too."
Which? have played a significant role in recent legal reforms in Scotland which helped bring about the Legal Profession & Legal Aid (Scotland) Act 2007, which in turn created the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission, designed to bring an element of 'independent' regulation to complaints against solicitors, which have traditionally been handled poorly and rather corruptly by the Law Society of Scotland during its decades long reign as self regulation of Scotland's legal profession.
Consumer Focus Scotland also support McKenzie Friend facility in Scotland. Consumer Focus Scotland, formerly known as the Scottish Consumer Council, also support the introduction of McKenzie Friends to the Scottish courts system, and referred to the issue in their response to the Scottish civil courts review. Sarah O'Neill, a Principal Policy Advocate with Consumer Focus Scotland reiterated the organisation's stance : "‘We would welcome recognition by the Scottish courts of the need for discretion to allow some form of ‘McKenzie friend’ to accompany and possibly represent a party litigant in appropriate cases’."
Justice Secretary 'will wait & see' over petition. Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill was asked for reaction on the McKenzie Friend petition, being reminded that the McKenzie Friend facility has been available in the rest of the UK for some 39 years previous. A spokesman for Mr MacAskill responded by saying : "We have no comment at the moment. As you will be aware, the petition will be considered by the Public Petitions Committee who will decide whether there should be further action. If the Committee ask Mr MacAskill for his opinion he will give it at that stage."
John Swinney has been asked to attend & speak at McKenzie Friend hearing at Holyrood. As I reported in my earlier article of late last week, the Cabinet Secretary for Finance, John Swinney MSP, who happens to be the constituency MSP for Mr MacKenzie, has been asked to attend the Petitions Committee hearing of 5th May to speak on the merits of McKenzie Friends, and on his experiences of representing constituents who have endured long suffering predicaments at the hands of the Law Society of Scotland and legal firms, which have been exacerbated by a well known policy operated by the legal profession of denying anyone access to justice in the Scottish courts where the subject matter of the case may conflict with the interests of the legal profession at large.
Mr Swinney's office was contacted for a media comment but has yet to issue a formal statement on the Cabinet Secretary's intentions, however, given consumer organisations have already come forward and glowingly supported the McKenzie Friend petition, Mr Swinney is widely expected to speak or issue some kind of support on his constituent's behalf.
The McKenzie Friend issue is of significant interest to many throughout Scotland who find it difficult or impossible to engage the services of a solicitor or gain access to the courts, either through the cost of such services, or more often obstruction from the legal profession who find it difficult to represent clients in cases which conflict with the general policies laid down by the Law Society of Scotland, particularly when it comes to members of the public attempting to sue another solicitor, as I have widely reported on previous occasions.
I am of course, also supporting the McKenzie Friend petition, and urge readers, and anyone experiencing difficulties in obtaining access to justice or access to legal representation to support the McKenzie friend Petition 1247 by contacting the Petitions Committee via their email at : firstname.lastname@example.org .