Legal cowboys prey on desperate refugees

TAKE a firm of solicitors, employ an Albanian “interpreter” to recruit hundreds of Kosovan asylum seekers from major ports and stations, and promise them top-notch legal advice. Then do nothing for them, but swell the practice's income by more than u1m a year through legal aid claims.

This is the scam that has allegedly been operated by scores of London solicitors over the past year.

Immigration green form advice is the largest single drain on the legal aid budget. It cost u35m in 1997/98, and is expected to rise to u50m this year.

Much of this money is lining the pockets of unscrupulous immigration solicitors, who are cynically milking the system and not offering adequate legal advice to the clients they so actively recruit.

The Law Society has been aware of the problem for some time but, as The Lawyer revealed last week, it has been slow to act, failing to pass a damning report to the Legal Aid Board (LAB) last October.

Yet the Asylum and Immigration Bill, published last week, allows the society to retain control of these shady lawyers.

Plans to force solicitors to be covered by a new statutory regulation scheme for immigration advisers have been shelved following a behind-the-scenes tussle between the Home Office and the Lord Chancellor's Department. Insiders say that the Government has told the Law Society to get tough on questionable solicitors if it wants its members to escape regulation.

The official Home Office version of events is that it would be unworkable to have immigration solicitors registered with the Home Office, because some of them also work in other areas of the law and would be answerable to two masters.

Concern about the problem has led to a crackdown on legal aid claims by the Legal Aid Board and the announcement of its closer co-operation with the Office for the Supervision of Solicitors (OSS).

LAB is investigating 76 immigration firms whose legal aid claims have risen dramatically in the past year. It is compiling a report for the Lord Chancellor calling for tighter control of immigration work through the use of exclusive contracts.

But this is no ordinary scam. Asylum and immigration is a highly politicised area of law, and the various vested interests charged with improving regulations are all pointing a finger at each other in a bid to protect their own corners.

The Home Office is blaming lawyers, the Law Society says that the problem lies with non-lawyer immigration advisers, and the Immigration Law Practitioners Association (ILPA) says LAB is being too simplistic about the whole issue because it wants to save money.

Perhaps the most damning evidence comes from a former Law Society immigration official, who left the society after it failed to act on his warnings about dodgy immigration solicitors.

Former Law Society immigration law sub-committee secretary Richard Dunstan, made a no-holds-barred farewell speech to the ILPA at the end of last year: “The great majority of those now operating in the asylum field, both lawyers and non-lawyers, are either insufficiently competent, dishonest or both.”

He condemned the Law Society as “hopeless” at regulating immigration solicitors, said that the OSS appeared “unable to act decisively”, and slammed the Home Office for being slow to act, despite being in possession of the facts.

Dunstan estimated that, of the top 40 green form billing firms in the field of asylum and immigration law, six were good, four or five had some shortcomings and the rest were “cowboys at best, and outright fraudsters at worst”.

He cited one firm that earned in excess of u500,000 last year by recruiting up to 100 asylum seekers a week via “interpreters” at the Government's Asylum Screening Unit (ASU) in Croydon.

Home Office insiders say that they have had to act against interpreters recruiting in the ASU waiting room, in the street and at the nearby railway station. Apparently, officials have even discovered interpreters signing green forms in the ASU toilets.

The average claim for legal advice offered at the ASU has been about u1,100 per asylum seeker.

“The LAB is pouring millions of pounds of taxpayers' money into the pockets of cowboy solicitors,” said Dunstan.

Mike Boyle, director of social services at Brent Council, and the man with responsibility for asylum seekers, has direct experience of the problem. “We've been getting a disproportionate number of referrals from a small group of legal practices,” he says.

“Some of the asylum seekers who turned up on our doorstep with solicitors' letters, saying they were eligible for assistance from us because they had been staying in Brent since their arrival, were unable to recall any details at all about the accommodation they had allegedly been staying in. In one or two cases, we have had reason to believe that asylum seekers brought the Brent solicitors' letters with them from Kosovo.”

The Law Society continues to play down the problem. Spokesman Dave McNeill says that once you put the figures into context, there is not much of a problem with bad immigration lawyers, and that when you look at the kind of complaints that have been received – the problem is even less worrying.

“Last year, there were only 71 complaints to the OSS about this area – out of a total of 25,000 complaints.

“And these were mainly about administrative matters such as failure to hand files over to other solicitors, failure to show up at adjudication panels and eleventh-hour asylum applications for their clients.”

But, as Dunstan pointed out, the society's regulatory function is predominantly complaints-led, and there are not too many complaints flooding in from vulnerable asylum seekers who often cannot speak English and do not know how the system is supposed to work.

According to McNeill, the real problem lies with the Home Office and non-lawyer immigration advisers, rather than swathes of bent solicitors carving up the legal aid budget between them.

“Some of the lawyers on the list of 76 may be there because the Home Office finds them abrasive. But if your job is to act as your client's champion, you have a professional obligation to throw a spanner in the works. A lawyer's responsibility is to the client, not to the bureaucracy.

“The real problem is with immigration advisers, not solicitors. You hear stories of people being charged hundreds of pounds for forms they could get free. For whatever reason, Jack Straw has sought to point the finger at lawyers.”

He points out that lawyers caught defrauding the legal aid system, or not doing a proper job for their clients could ultimately be struck off.

Immigration barrister Stephanie Harrison accuses Home Office officials of failing to make complaints in most cases, or to take action against offenders.

“The Home Office hasn't had much of an incentive,” she says. “When asylum seekers are properly represented, it makes the Home Office's job more difficult.

“The asylum system is already over-burdened. Good representation takes time and increases the backlog. If you're not properly represented, it helps the Home Office to get a higher volume of cases through.”

Harrison urges the Home Office to take action to enforce legal standards at immigration hearings. “Lawyers can get away with the sort of things that they would never be allowed to in other courts.”

Jawaid Luqmani of the ILPA says that it is time to stop pussyfooting around the issue of corrupt solicitors. “Let's name them and shame them, so that we all know who they are,” he says.

Reputable solicitors and barristers working on the ground are concerned about how current practices work against asylum seekers – an extremely vulnerable client group. Solicitor Jane Coker of Jane Coker & Partners says the lives of some asylum seekers could be put at risk.

“We've been banging on about this for years to try to stop asylum seekers getting rubbish advice from solicitors.” She says her firm sometimes picks up the pieces from unscrupulous immigration lawyers.

Due to the crisscrossing of vested interests in the asylum business, Dunstan fears that the absence of proactive regulation for lawyers means one set of cowboys will be weeded out simply to make way for a new generation of equally unscrupulous practitioners.