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In common law, a next friend (Law French prochain ami) is a person who represents another person who is under disability or otherwise unable to maintain a suit on his or her own behalf and who does not have a legal guardian.
This disability often arises from minority, mental incapacity, or lack of access to counsel. Consequently every application to the court on behalf of a minor, a mentally incapacitated person, or a person detained without access to an attorney, who does not have a legal guardian or someone authorized to act on his or her behalf with a power of attorney, must be made through a next friend (prochein amie, proximus amicus).
Before the Married Women's Property Act 1882 in British law (and similar acts during the same period in American law), it was usual for a married woman to sue by a next friend; but that act, allowing a married woman to sue in all respects as a feme sole, has rendered a next friend unnecessary in the case of married women.
When a relative who is next of kin acts as a next friend for a person, that person is sometimes instead described as the natural guardian of the person.
Historically, in the case of a minor, the father is prima facie the proper person to act as next friend; in the father's absence, the testamentary guardian, if any, is next friend; but any person not under disability may act as next friend so long as he has no interest in the action adverse to that of the minor. A married woman could not historically act as next friend; but this practice is no longer current, at least in the United States. A minor frequently defends a suit not by a next friend but by a guardian ad litem, often appointed by the court with jurisdiction over the case or by a court with probate jurisdiction.
In the case of mental incapacity, a conservator, guardian, or committee, but if they have no such representative, or if the committee has some interest adverse to the claimant, they may sue by a next friend.
A next friend has full power over the proceedings in the action as if he or she were an ordinary plaintiff, until a guardian or guardian ad litem is appointed in the case; but the next friend is entitled to present evidence only on the same basis as any other witness.