'Conned trying to get my children back'
- 13 February 2017
- From the section UK
Two parents fighting legal battles for custody of their children paid thousands of pounds to a company providing "McKenzie friends" - people with no legal training who assist in court. But they were badly let down.
Rupinder Randhawa had been feeling "very low" after her solicitor told her it was hopeless to pursue a court battle for custody of her children.
The mother-of-four had wanted to fight the adoption of her youngest two children, instigated by social services.
"I was not in a great space," she told the BBC's Victoria Derbyshire programme, "but I was still willing to fight for my children."
Then, she came across David Bright, who ran The Parent's Voice London, a service that provided McKenzie friends.
Bright told Ms Randhawa he had "never lost a case" and charged her £480 a month, plus additional one-off charges, to work on her case as a McKenzie friend.
She subsequently lost her case and is no longer fighting the adoption of her children.
- McKenzie friends can help people representing themselves in court to understand the legal process
- They are often used by people who cannot afford or do not want to use a solicitor
- Anyone can be a McKenzie friend. It does not require any legal qualification
- Most often they help claimants fill out forms, or provide advice on the legal process
- Increasingly, McKenzie friends are charging fees for their work
After this, Bright asked Ms Randhawa for an additional £6,000 to pay for a book to be published about her case, which he said would help her win her children back.
She paid him, but no book was ever published.
"I felt like I'd been conned," she said. "I felt my whole world came crashing around me, because there was no hope in getting my children back."
Bright was a director of The Parents' Voice, and both he and fellow director Claire Mann were jailed last year for perverting the course of justice in a case separate to Ms Randhawa's.
Bright denies any wrongdoing, and says he and The Parents' Voice "helped hundreds of families".
When families break up and there is a dispute over the custody of children it can end up in the family court.
But since changes to legal aid in 2013, it is more difficult for parents to get funding to help with their costs in these cases - which is why some are turning to McKenzie friends as a cheaper alternative.
There is presently no regulation of these services.
Stephen - not his real name - came across the The Parents' Voice after his marriage broke down and his ex-wife took custody of their children.
He said Bright initially "just sang to my ears".
"He told me exactly what I wanted to hear," Stephen said.
"He asked me if I wanted custody. He asked me how much I wanted to see the kids."
But, he said, Bright took more than £12,000 from him, by charging him twice and for work he did not do.
Both Stephen and Ms Randhawa won county court judgements against David Bright and The Parents' Voice, for more than £10,000 each for work that was not carried out.
There have also been several other successful claims against the company.
Jenny Lewington worked for The Parents' Voice as a McKenzie friend before stopping in a dispute over payment.
She was also disturbed by some of David Bright's working practices.
"I'd gone to the hearing with a mother who was trying to appeal an adoption and [David Bright] had submitted the wrong form to apply for the appeal," she said.
Mrs Lewington said he had then told her he "did it to try and delay matters".
Ultimately the mother lost her case, and Mrs Lewington felt The Parents' Voice had given her false hope that she could win.
Senior judges have been considering making changes to the way paid-for McKenzie friends operate.
Among proposals in a consultation last year was the introduction of a code of practice.
The Law Society, which represents solicitors, has called for a ban on McKenzie friends being able to recover costs in court cases, to underline the fact that they are different to solicitors or barristers.
Richard Miller, from the Law Society, said: "One of our concerns about the rise in paid-for McKenzie friends is that a lot of these people are effectively acting as lawyers and advertising themselves as lawyers.
"But they do not have legal training and legal qualifications, and they do not have the duties to the court that a qualified lawyer does."
The Victoria Derbyshire programme is broadcast on weekdays between 09:00 and 11:00 on BBC Two and the BBC News channel.