A new frontier for immigration clients

Immigrants have a notoriously hard time at the hands of their legal advisers. Sue Wilman suggests some measures to tackle the serious problems in this area of practice. Sue Wilman is a solicitor at Hammersmith & Fulham Community Law Centre.

Desperate clients are typical clients at the Law Centre where I work. Among the stream of sad stories, immigration clients stand out as having endured the most extreme circumstances.

It is immigration clients who tell us accounts of intimidation, deception, theft and sexual assault. But they are not suffering at the hands of brutal foreign regimes; it is their legal advisers who are the culprits.

Within weeks of assuming government, Jack Straw announced plans to curb advisers who dupe immigrants. Home Office proposals are expected next month. There is widespread consensus that something needs to be done.

Why is it that corruption and incompetence are so rife in this area of practice?

For starters, immigration clients are more vulnerable than other client groups because they have the most to lose – in some cases their lives or those of their families. They are less likely to be familiar with our legal system and so are more prone to exploitation than, say, a client instructing a criminal lawyer.

Absence of funding for representation is also a factor. It is absurd that legal aid funds disputes between neighbours but not immigration appeals, however complex the factual and legal issues.

The lack of legal aid has left a hotch-potch of provision by Law Centres, specialist advice centres and solicitors. The government-funded Refugee Legal Centre and Immigration Advisory Service are not funded to conduct a case from start to finish. Few Citizens Advice Bureaux would claim to have the necessary expertise.

Then there is the Immigration Service itself. Delays, inaccessibility and the onerous burden of proof force increasingly desperate clients into the hands of unscrupulous advisers who promise miracles.

Why not provide full funding for immigration advice and representation with a system of sanctions for those who manipulate their clients? Why not have recognised training schemes as a prerequisite of legal aid funding?

Why is there not publicly funded information at every stage, from the airport to the Immigration Service's own letters, advising immigration clients of their rights, including the availability of free advice?

In Australia it is a criminal offence to provide immigration advice for profit, unless the adviser is licensed. I would like to see a system here which treats exploitation of immigration clients at least as seriously as shoplifting or careless driving.

But just as the victims of violent crime are often afraid to give evidence against their assailants, protection will be needed for those who dare to complain.

We need an independent body with teeth to take up complaints, offering anonymity and immunity from prosecution.

So my solution is simple – lock the Legal Aid Board in a room with the Home Office, and keep them there until the Home Office offers fair and efficient procedures and both sides offer rewards for good advice and penalties for incompetence or corruption.