O'Brien slates solicitors

SOLICITORS came in for a blistering attack from immigration minister Mike O'Brien, when he appeared before the Home Affairs Select Committee last week.

Describing the asylum system as a “shambles”, O'Brien identified “unscrupulous” solicitors as a “key” problem and accused the profession of charging clients “as much as £500 for writing a letter to the Home Office” and of “deliberately delaying cases”, thereby clogging up the system and causing difficulties to genuine refugees.

His words echoed an earlier attack on immigration advisers made by the Home Secretary Jack Straw in January, when the Government issued a consultation paper which called for immigration advisers to be regulated.

Then Straw infuriated the Law Society by claiming he had a list of 38 unscrupulous law firms, without providing details of who they were or what they had been accused of doing.

At last week's hearing, O'Brien denied the Home Office held a “blacklist”, but confirmed a list of firms the Home Office objected to had been handed over to the Office for the Supervision of Solicitors.

O'Brien said the Government was considering regulating immigration advisers, strengthening border controls abroad and in the UK, and reducing asylum seekers' powers of appeals. He said the promised overhaul of the immigration system might include increased use of the detention of immigrants.

He also revealed that the Home Office had set up a working group earlier this year to look at the possibility of establishing a documentation centre, similar to one in Canada, to produce reports on refugee-producing countries to help the Home Office speed up its decision-making process.

He went on to tell the committee there was a backlog of 51,000 immigration cases at the Home Office, 23,000 cases currently in the appeal process and 17,000 cases where asylum claimants had “absconded”.

However, he did concede that these figures could be misleading, as some cases belonged to several categories.

Richard Dunstan, secretary of the Law Society's immigration law sub committee, denounced these figures as a “joke”, claiming the Home Office “basically doesn't have a clue about the number of people in these categories”.

He said it was the Home Office rather than solicitors that delayed cases, as it took, on average, 15 months for it to consider an application for asylum. Referring to the list of firms handed over to the OSS, he said the Home Office had given no details of what the firms were alleged to have done.