The project explored the online provision of information and advice directed at parents who turn to social media or online forums to post their queries or concerns in relation to private or public child law.
The data came from posts and social media groups run by online advisers who often identify themselves as McKenzie Friends, i.e. litigation friends who help people represent themselves in court proceedings; while some McKenzie Friends provide support and advice on a voluntary basis, some charge a fee for their services.
The fee-charging McKenzie Friends have recently been under criticism from the legal profession because they are unregulated, often without proven expertise and may be providing biased advice. But it is also clear that in the context of cuts in legal aid in England and Wales, parents often do not have many options for affordable legal advice and may find McKenzie Friends a seemingly cheaper option than lawyers. The project looked at the quality and type of advice provided by such advisers online.
By analysing over 170 threads from online forums and Facebook groups, the project explored the type of information and advice parents are seeking in relation to public and private child law (via their initial queries); the quality and type of information and advice they are provided with (via responses by McKenzie Friends or forum moderators); and further support provided by other online group users (via the comments section). The data was analysed in two stages. The first stage involved a linguistic analysis of social media and forum platforms using corpus linguistics tools for semi-automated text analysis. The focus on lexical choices the participants made in their posts allowed for a comparative analysis between the main themes discussed by parents, McKenzie Friends and other users. The second phase of the project drew on the results of the corpus linguistics analysis to create a coding system for the content analysis and investigate the quality of advice and information provided by MFs.
The results of the project highlight that McKenzie Friends’ advice on court processes and procedures tailored to individual parents’ queries is often very helpful. The problems arise when advisers are not aware of the limitations of their expertise and provide information or advice on issues of more technical nature, which can result in misleading or inaccurate advice. The data analysis also revealed several instances of highly problematic responses that could potentially lead to actions which would obstruct justice and put children in danger. The more wide-spread problems were nonetheless caused not by the substantive content of responses but their non-conciliatory tone and inflammatory remarks towards official bodies (social services, CAFCASS, courts), the legal profession and ex-partners of forum/group users. Informal language use and inflammatory remarks could nonetheless be partially attributed to the nature of interactions and communication on social media as well as the need of McKenzie Friends to build rapport with parents, i.e. their potential clients. In addition, McKenzie Friends' responses show their desire to clearly distinguish themselves from official institutions and the legal profession as these usually have associations which are hostile and alienating to lay people. The research project provides the first quantitative and qualitative analysis of McKenzie Friends’ advice in the pre-hearing stages; the study thus contributes to the discussion on regulating McKenzie Friends.
The project has also contributed to the development of mixed methods design incorporating the bottom-up corpus linguistics methods, primarily used in applied linguistics, with the qualitative top-down content analysis, primarily used in socio-legal studies. As part of the project, the research team lead a methodological workshop Applications of Corpus Linguistics for Socio-Legal Studies, which showcased a wide range of corpus linguistics methods and their applicability for textual socio-legal analysis.
The project has produced outputs such as:
- A methodology workshop: https://www.evensi.uk/applications-corpus-linguistics-methods-socio-legal-research-curzon-building-birmingham-city-university-room-c423/292338508
- A digital leaflet on McKenzie Friends
- Tkacukova, T. (forthcoming, 2020). “Changing Landscape of Advice Provision: Online Forums and Social Media Run by McKenzie Friends”. Child and Family Law Quarterly.
- Tkacukova, T. and Sommerlad, H. (submitted). “Out of court and out of sight: The role, advice and place of McKenzie Friends within the reconfigured family justice field”. Journal of law and Society.