Support for Self-Representing Litigants in Canada: The McKenzie Friend

Written by Eric Epp

For self-representing litigants (SRL), the prospect of going to court alone can be extremely daunting. SRL are able to access various types of information that may assist them, such as obtaining legal information from community organizations or by receiving legal coaching through a lawyer who might offer unbundled services. In these scenarios SRL generally will act on their own once in court, but a small exception to this is a creation known as a “McKenzie friend”. A “McKenzie friend” is a support person who can assist in the matter by being in the courtroom to provide moral support and, essentially, administrative support to a SRL.

The concept of a McKenzie friend originated in a case reported as McKenzie v McKenzie [1970] 3 WLR 472. In this British divorce hearing, the husband originally had assistance from a friend not authorized to practice law in Britain. The initial judge refused to allow this, but this was overturned by the Court of Appeal, who cited Collier v Hicks, a case from 1831,that “any person, whether he be a professional or not, may attend as a friend of either party, may take notes, may quietly make suggestions, and give advice.”[1]

McKenzie friends do not provide legal services.[2] The general rule remains as noted above—they may offer quiet advice, take notes, and provide moral support. Anything beyond that such as advancing arguments or cross-examination[3] would be considered the unauthorized practice of law. McKenzie friends may be prohibited from assisting a SRL if they are really a legal agent; have a history of disruptions to the courts; appear mentally ill or aggressive; are a minor; or, are a witness in the proceeding.[4]

Manitoba’s use of the McKenzie friend is limited and has traditionally been utilized in family law proceedings, rather than civil or criminal matters.[5] The McKenzie friend is considered something left to the presiding judge’s discretion.[6]

As a matter of access to justice, the allowance of a McKenzie friend in Canadian courts is an important development for SRL. Although allowing a party to bring a friend to court is not an unfamiliar process, the recent uptick of the term “McKenzie friend” in Canadian jurisprudence indicates that the concept is being applied more formally.[7]. Most judges interviewed in DaSilva and Macfarlane’s 2016 study on McKenzie friends for the National Self-Represented Litigants Project, stated that if an SRL is more comfortable with a friend helping them in these minor ways, they will allow it.[8] A well-selected McKenzie friend will be able to keep the litigant focused on the specific issues at hand.

To be clear, the McKenzie friend is not a right. Litigants who wish to have this support person with them in the courtroom should request permission, rather than assume that they will be allowed. Court staff have generally indicated that the development of the support person is viewed positively.[9] The trend in self-representation in Canada continues to rise and any positive assistance that SRL can obtain is step in the right direction.

[1] Robin Spon-Smith, “McKenzie Friends” (last visited 1 September 2022), online: Family Law Week<> [].

[2] Moss v. NN Life Insurance Co., 2004 MBCA 10 at paras 12-13.

[3] The Law Society of Manitoba v. Pollock, 2007 MBQB 51 at para 122 [Pollock].

[4] Judith M. DaSilva & Julie Macfarlane, “The McKenzie Friend: Choosing and Presenting a Courtroom Companion” (March 2016), at 16, online (pdf): The National Self-Represented Litigants Project <> [].

[5] Pollocksupra note 3 at para 122.

[6] Ibid.

[7] “The McKenzie Friend: Canadian cases and additional research” (updated June 2020), online (pdf): The National Self-Represented Litigants Project <> [].

[8] DaSilva & Macfarlane, supra note 4 at 15.

[9] Dr. Julie Macfarlane, “The National Self-Represented Litigants Project: Identifying and Meeting the Needs of Self-Represented Litigants, Final Report” (May 2013), at 78, online (pdf): The National Self-Represented Litigants Project  <> [].

The views and opinions expressed in the blogs are the views of their authors, and do not represent the views of the Faculty of Law, or the University of Manitoba. Academic Members of the University of Manitoba are entitled to academic freedom in the context of a respectful working and learning environment.

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