McKenzie v McKenzie

English Family Law

McKenzie v McKenzie
‘His Only Friend’ by Briton Riviere

English history suggests that when faced with litigation, each party must rely upon, and thus retain, the services of a qualified legal advocate, whether by way of barrister, or as is now more common, a practising solicitor equipped with a modicum of experience in the legal field at hand; however in the tail end of the 1960s, the playing field was somewhat levelled by a case involving two former immigrants, both left fighting to dissolve what was clearly a dysfunctional and abusive marriage.

Having arrived in Great Britain from Jamaica in 1956, the now appellant husband had at the point of the original hearing, fathered six children with his respondent wife, who herself had settled with him there in 1957. In 1965, the respondent initiated divorce proceedings on grounds that the appellant had subjected her and their five remaining children to repeated molestation and inhumane treatment throughout the course of their relationship, while the appellant cited his own cruel treatment at the hands of the respondent.

In the first instance, the Lambeth magistrate’s court held that the appellant was to cease his molestation and depart the family home, to which the appellant acquiesced, only for the respondent to later cite further cruelty and adultery, while the appellant also claimed adultery on the part of the respondent, an action which had left her pregnant and requesting a psychiatric referral for a hysterectomy on grounds that she was now depressed and suffering prolonged emotional stress.

While the matter itself became increasingly complex, the appellant was unexpectedly denied his previously administered legal aid, and so when the trial began in 1969, he was found without legal representation. To remedy this obvious dilemma, the previous solicitors assigned a young Australian barrister to escort and attend the numerous court sessions, while occasionally offering notes and verbal guidance as the appellant attempted to argue his position in a matter that the judge himself had later expressed was:

“[Q]uite a difficult case, quite apart from the difficulties of communication which are inevitable because of the rapidity and the sometimes inaudible way in which the evidence was given on both sides….”

However, for reasons best known to himself, the judge soon ordered the young barrister to remove himself from the appellant’s side, on grounds that unless the man’s name appeared on the court records, he was to remain unable to participate in the proceedings in any way, a decision which left the appellant alone and thus unable to fully comprehend what was being said, and how best to assert his own opinions before the court.

Having lost the case, the appellant then challenged the judgement before the Court of Appeal on grounds that the removal of the barrister was in many respects an obstruction of justice, and that by doing so, the judge had erred in his decision, while the appellant also argued that he had been denied his right to present his own claim of adultery against the respondent.

Here, the court turned to Collier v Hicks, in which Tenterden CJ had concisely explained that:

“Any person, whether he be a professional man or not, may attend as a friend of either party, may take notes, may quietly make suggestions, and give advice…”

Thus the court unanimously upheld the appeal and ordered a new trial, while also holding that:

“[L]itigants should be seen to have all available aid in conducting cases in court surroundings, which must of their nature to them seem both difficult and strange.”

A decision that has since altered the landscape of countless court hearings, while granting those daunted at the prospect of judicial scrutiny, and unable to retain a legal representative, the perfect opportunity to bolster their argument and thereby presence by the hand and words of a learned supporter, should they see fit. 

Author: Neil Egan-Ronayne

Legal Consultant, Author and Foodie...

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