Unqualified courtroom advisors can provide litigants with biased and misleading advice, researchers have claimed.

McKenzie Friends provide assistance to ‘litigants in person’: people who are involved in legal disputes but who have no legal representation, normally because they cannot afford a lawyer. Most Friends are not legally qualified so cannot provide legal guidance: instead they offer advice and suggestions in court, helping the litigant to conduct their case. Some charge fees while others work on a pro bono basis.

The term ‘McKenzie Friends’ dates back to a 1970 case in which a British man called Levine McKenzie received informal advice from a barrister during his divorce.

Researchers from Birmingham City University and Leeds Law School looked at advice given online by McKenzie Friends. They assessed 170 threads on Facebook, along with additional posts on other platforms. They found Friends advising litigants to disregard any formal legal advice they may have received. They insisted all family courts were unfair and “gender-biased” and the legal system was a “disgrace”. Social services were “incompetent” the Friends insisted, and all but one description of individual judges uncovered by the researchers were negative in tone.

Researcher Dr Tatiana Tkacukova said:

“…the unregulated environment online means that our research found several instances of worrying, biased and misleading advice. The negative portrayals of the courts and social services, alongside the advice to ignore specialised legal advice show a worrying trend towards personal viewpoints and agendas clouding impartial and objective support.”

She added:

“To help protect the many vulnerable people in these cases, we need to see a move towards a more regulated environment with increased transparency to make sure that people know the information they are accessing and the legal qualifications of those advising them.”

Read the full report here.

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