A company charging £10,000 to train people to manage their private family law cases in court without a lawyer and represent others involved in divorce and child contact proceedings, has caused concern among parents on Facebook.

The Family Law Association (FLA) has been reaching out to posters on its Facebook page to recruit customers through unsolicited private messages, which are sent once Facebook users leave a comment under posts on the company’s Facebook page.

Steven Wade, co-founder of the Family Law Association and a former McKenzie Friend for Families Need Fathers, denied the company had sent out any unsolicited emails, telling Researching Reform, “We advertise our courses on our website and social media but don’t solicit individuals to offer them training or a franchise.”

Several parents going through the family courts sent Researching Reform the private messages they had received from FLA about its training scheme, after they left unrelated comments on the company’s Facebook page.

One family video-recorded the process and sent it to this site. The video confirms that a generic comment posted on FLA’s page triggers a private message about the company’s training programme.

The first message recipients receive says the company is looking for ‘graduates’ to join their team in 2021, and invites the recipient to click on a link if they want to know more. The cost of the training is not revealed until much later.

Once the user clicks on the link, a series of messages follow which mention the company’s drive to find new graduates for their programme and new consultants for their business, while asking the recipient if they would like to earn an income doing work that makes a difference to people’s lives.

The messages offer further encouragement by telling recipients that if they are interested in a career move and passionate about helping others, then “you are the kind of person we are looking for.”

After a recipient registers their interest, FLA’s team ask for their email and phone details and then move the conversation away from Facebook and onto email.

It is in these emails that more details about the scheme emerge, including the cost of the training.

The email implies the training is offered to anyone who would like it, but it becomes apparent that not everyone who pays the £10,000 fee and takes the course is automatically invited to join the company.

The email says, “if you’re successful in this training you’ll be set to become a franchisee for Family Law Assistance,” but gives no indication of how that success is measured.

Wade told Researching Reform that the offer of a franchise was “dependent on [the graduate’s] suitability and background.”

The email goes on to say that successful candidates become franchisees, and for £1,000 a year the franchisee joins FLA’s team, is added to the company’s website, receives training on how to run their franchise and is able to access clients.

The last section of the email says that interested recipients can then join a Zoom call to ask further questions, which the team then offer to arrange.

FLA’s messages and emails have confused parents, some of whom are considered to be vulnerable because of mental health conditions and special needs. Several parents reported that the wording gave them the impression they would be paid for work, while others thought the invitation was a firm offer to join the company’s team after completing the training.

Shortly after Researching Reform reached out to Wade to ask about FLA’s recruitment process, the private messages appeared to have stopped. One mother who posted on FLA’s page on Thursday said she had not received the same message as previous posters.

Concerns about McKenzie friends charging for their support have been raised by family lawyers who have commented that individuals without legal training offering advice and assistance in court could be detrimental to clients, and their cases. The concerns were followed by a set of guidelines issued in 2010 by the Family Division, which allowed lay advisors to represent parties and charge for their services.

Dwindling legal aid and the rising cost of conventional legal representation has created a gap in the market for family court assistance. This gap has been taken advantage of by lawyers (who can also act as McKenzie friends under the current rules, and use this loophole to offer limited services at a reduced rate) and non-lawyers alike.

The question over how much a McKenzie Friend can and should charge, without any legal qualifications, has been a source of heated debate within the family justice system.

Several lay advisors have been commended by family court judges for their ability to represent clients professionally and to the same standard as traditional lawyers and are often noted by families to be empathetic, because of extensive personal experience going through the family courts with their own cases.

Despite being able to charge for services, the McKenzie Friend sector remains divided about costs.

The first wave of McKenzie friends in Britain entered the sector with a sense of responsibility to assist those in need, and remain sensitive to families’ often difficult financial situations. These Original McKenzies, as they’re known, tend only to charge for their expenses – a train fare and a packed lunch.

Others, like FLA, see a business opportunity. FLA, which also offers assistance to litigants in person going through private family law proceedings, says its training course takes place over a 12 week period, and includes Zoom sessions, homework, feedback and communication from FLA co-founder and Steven’s partner, Michaela.

FLA’s course covers a range of topics and skills.

“We cover family law – child matters, finance and divorce in training. As well as providing training on the law itself we also deal with the practicalities of it, coaching clients to get them into the right mindset (being child focused, positive, reframing), how to market yourself, how to run the business, the implications of what we do, and so on,” Wade said.

Commenting on FLA’s training programme, one high profile McKenzie Friend said, “What the actual “F”, nothing surprises me in the dark world of MKF’s. Many have become part of the problem because they can see a way of making money.”

Another McKenzie Friend said, “I don’t know what on earth could cost £10k to be a McKenzie friend. If that’s true its baffling to me. I’ve done this job for a very long time but at the end of the day it’s a supporting role,” adding, “I don’t know what degree tuition fees are like these days but that seems like a comparable amount so I am truly shocked.”

An announcement by the government to offer people free college courses has given parents without funds for courses like Wade’s, who want to help others going through family court proceedings hope that they can get the skills they need.

The new initiative, which was announced at the end of September, enables people without an A level qualification to apply for free, fully-funded college courses with flexible learning built in for ease of study.

The offer is available from April next year, with the list of available courses to be announced shortly. (Click the updates section of the announcement page at the very bottom to find out when the list is published and keep an eye out for any updates).

On offer right now are the Open University’s free courses which are available to everyone, including a course on social work and the law, as well as dozens of other courses on law, mental capacity, human rights and legal research. (Just type law into the search bar and scroll down).

The courses are also categorised helpfully into ‘introductory’, ‘intermediate’, and ‘advanced’, and you can also see how long each course takes to complete.

A very big thank you to TumTum for her help and support during the investigation process, and for the several brilliant ideas she offered.