Fee-charging McKenzie friends increase access to justice and comprise a 'legitimate feature of the modern legal market', according to a report published today by watchdog the Legal Services Consumer Panel.
Following reports of increasing numbers charging for their services, particularly in family cases, the panel has concluded the first-ever review of this emerging market.
McKenzie friends have been around for the last 50 years, it notes; traditionally volunteers, they help litigants in person by providing moral support, taking notes, helping with case papers and giving advice.
Though some provide initial telephone advice free of charge, the rates charged vary between £15 to £89 an hour. The panel found that those who worked full-time helped 50-100 people last year and reported £100,000 or more in turnover. Such amounts were the exception, with most earning below £50,000 and some only helping a handful of clients.
The report showed that most had neither a legal qualification nor insurance.
The panel found some McKenzie friends were expanding their role, by providing legal advice and seeking a right of audience, mirroring the service offered by lawyers.
It concluded that the access to justice benefits outweigh the risks, after the study found no evidence of widespread detriment.
The watchdog ruled out statutory regulation, but called for a system of self-regulation by establishing a trade association and code of practice covering courtroom and commercial practices.
Among its 15 recommendations, the panel also called for a 'culture shift' which recognises fee-charging McKenzie friends as a 'legitimate feature of the modern legal services market'.
'They should be viewed as providing valuable support that improves access to justice in the large majority of cases,' it said.
McKenzie friends should not be given automatic rights of audience, said the panel. Instead judicial guidance should be issued giving judges discretion to grant rights of audience where it would be in the interests of justice.
To tackle the 'minority' of bad McKenzie friends, the panel suggested the use of civil restraint orders and enforcement by trading standards.
Panel chair Elisabeth Davies (pictured) said a McKenzie friend is often the 'real choice' for those getting divorced, or fighting for access to their children, but who cannot afford a lawyer.
While there are legitimate concerns about the quality and behaviour of some, she said, they can provide valuable support which improves access to justice and helps courts get through their caseloads.
'Conservative attitudes' mean McKenzie friends often encounter resistance in court and 'barely get a mention in advice guides', she added.