I am meeting more and more people who ask this question especially with the new online divorce facility launched by HM Court Service. I am being instructed by many Petitioners and Respondent in Divorce proceedings who have attempted to navigate their way through the online service and have struggled to make progress and face delays, and worse, a total lack of response from the courts.

The Court system is groaning under the strain of Family Law applications. I am finding the most worrying trend for many clients is the growth of the Mackenzie Friends who are charging for advice despite their lack of legal qualifications, experience or regulation.

A recent study has found that vulnerable people who have chosen to represent themselves in court are often given “biased and misinformed advice” by so-called legal advisors online. This advice was also found to reflect “personal anti-court and anti-social services viewpoints”.

The study was carried out by Dr Tatiana Tkacukova, who is a Senior Lecturer in English Language at Birmingham City University, and Professor Hilary Sommerlad, from Leeds Law School. It took an in-depth look at the legal advice being given by advisors operating on online forums and social media platforms. They analysed 170 Facebook threads holding advice from 30 different McKenzie friends. A McKenzie Friend is someone who helps to advise Litigants in Person on a voluntary or paid basis.

The study found instances where these people were advising parents to ignore the advice of lawyers as well as implying the courts were “institutionally unfair”. Sometime they were also advising to act against the advice of lawyers and instead use the services of McKenzie Friends.

Negative language used by McKennzie Friends included ‘gender-biased’ and ‘disgrace (when describing social services and Family Courts), and social services were also described as “not delivering, asking ‘stupid’ questions and being incompetent.”

In total, the study found just one positive description of a judge in all of the posts they analysed and found three instances in which a parent was advised to draft their own statement instead of taking specialist legal advice.

Dr Tatiana Tkacukova, Senior Lecturer in English Literature at Birmingham City University, said:

“The increase in people representing themselves in court means that many parents are struggling to navigate the system while seeking to understand the way courts, social services and the legal system works.

“McKenzie Friends provide a much needed service to offer advice and support to those for whom the legal system and the language of law is completely alien.

“While there are many positive experiences, 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.

“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.”

To reiterate what Dr Tkacukova said, this research clearly shows the need for transparency to protect vulnerable people who are tempted to take the advice of McKenzie friends on the presumption that they are getting expert legal advice.

My advice would be to choose your representation very carefully, and go to a reputable lawyer with specialist expertise in the area of law in which you need guidance and support. Farleys have a team of expert family lawyers who can advise on a range of issues including divorce and child law. Contact the team today on 0845 287 0939 or send your enquiry through our online contact form.