McKenzie friends are people who assist others in court while not themselves being attorneys. They are allowed in England and Wales.
In Canadian practice (and U.K. practice is similar):
A McKenzie friend is a support person who sits alongside someone appearing in court without a lawyer – a ‘self-represented litigant’. Their role is to provide practical and emotional support during the court process by helping to keep the self-represented litigant organized, calm and focused. Anyone can act as a McKenzie Friend but generally it is a trusted family member or friend, and ultimately their presence in the courtroom is allowed only at a judge’s discretion.
What can a McKenzie friend do? If a judge does give permission, a McKenzie Friend can sit at the front of the courtroom and:
- take notes;
- organize documents;
- make quiet suggestions to the litigant;
- provide emotional support;
- pay attention to the courtroom discussion;
- do any other task approved of by the judge.
Normally in U.S. practice, non-lawyer companions of a party who are not staff to lawyers are not allowed to sit at the front (inside "the bar"), but may take notes, organize documents, provide emotional support and pay attention to the courtroom discussion, as these activities are not considered the practice of law. It isn't uncommon to see self-represented litigants with this kind of assistance in U.S. courts, although these persons are almost never formally recognized as having a role in the litigation process.
This role is not formally recognized in most U.S. courts as it is in Canada and the U.K. So, normally there would not be other tasks approved of by a judge, although judges can approve interpreters (including interpreters for the deaf and readers for the blind) and someone whose presence is necessary to accommodate a disability of a party (e.g. someone operating the party's oxygen tank or IV bag or helping the party to sit upright).
It is conceivable that a judge might allow a McKenzie friend-type person to sit at the same table as the a self-represented party in the U.S., on an ad hoc basis, as an accommodation of a person with a disability of the mental health variety in much the same way that a service dog for such a person might be permitted under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The role of making suggestions to the litigant quietly would normally be considered the practice of law and would be prohibited in U.S. courts, although some judges would be more strict in enforcing this requirement than others would be, and the definition of the "practice of law" varies from state to state. Many judges would allow a McKenzie friend type person to quietly alert a self-represented party to the need to stand up when the judge walks in, but not to talk about what questions the litigant should ask a witness, for example.
Some states have pilot programs to explore more significant non-lawyer assistance for a party. Colorado, for example, as a "Sherlock" program where court employees help self-represented parties navigate the court system without crossing the line into legal advice, and Washington State has a "legal technician" program that allows non-lawyers who have pursued a paraprofessional training program to practice in certain narrow topic areas as independent professionals without being lawyers.
Some states also allow managers or officers of companies to represent their companies in small claims courts and administrative proceedings (e.g. unemployment hearings and zoning hearings), although this is not generally allowed in other court proceedings.
Neither McKenzie Friends (in Canadian and U.K. practice), nor non-lawyers in the U.S. in general, are permitted to speak on behalf of or negotiate on behalf of a party in a law suit.
There are some jurisdictions experimenting with limited representation by non-lawyers, but the option of a "McKenzie friend" is unavailable in the United States generally.