One of the most frequent questions I get asked is about what the rights are of litigants in person in Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995 and Matrimonial Causes ( Northern Ireland) Order 1978 cases, and secondly what happens at different courts throughout Northern Ireland.
There are bits and pieces of Northern Ireland case law including one that I was involved in McA-v-McA in 2006 where Master Redpath was the judge. As correctly identified by Master Redpath the case law in England and Wales at their Court of Appeal level isn’t legal tender in Northern Ireland, as we have our own Court of Appeal. We also have our own Head of the Family Division, who is currently Mr Justice Weir.
I have personal experience of Weir J being scrupulously even handed to personal litigants, even allowing two McKenzie friends to assist in complicated cases. I can also say that when Sir Declan Morgan was the Family Judge in Belfast he had no problem in giving myself and a colleague a discretional Right of Audience in a private law Children Order matter. This included having leave to cross examine witnesses.
I wish I could pay the same compliments to their judicial colleagues, as there is a mixed bag of approaches out there from other High Court judges (one of whom made me go into the box and give an Undertaking!!!) all the way down to Magistrate level (one of whom wouldn’t grant me a Right of Audience for a couple in the 70’s with a myriad of health problem who wanted to see their grandchildren).
I feel that the current McKenzie Friend swing-ometer could be calibrated correctly if there was something produced and circulated that was akin to the President’s Guidance ( here reproduced by the Family Law Bar Association), that currently cover’s England and Wales. Or better still an edict that said that the President’s Guidance here was to be followed in every family court in Northern Ireland. It only takes a Practice Direction, and in this time of cutbacks it might be a money saver to rubber stamp what England and Wales have already realised, that experienced McKenzie friends can be of invaluable assistance not only to a personal litigant, but also to the court.