Law: Straw's plans to curb immigration racketeers upset Law Society

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The Independent Online
The Home Office has unveiled plans to stop bogus immigration advisers ripping people off. But, as Michael Streeter says, Jack Straw's attack on immigration lawyers has sparked a row with the Law Society.

The aim of the consultation document in curbing the bogus advisers who charge hundreds of pounds for wrong or fraudulent advice was widely welcomed yesterday.

The unregulated actions of what Mr Straw described as "racketeers" not only rip off vulnerable immigrants but also clog up the already overloaded immigration process. Future bogus operators could face jail.

But remarks by the Home Secretary that appeared to single out immigration lawyers for criticism infuriated the Law Society, who accused him of needless lawyer-bashing and of distracting attention from the real culprits - the unqualified "advisers".

Mr Straw said that when hundreds of Czech and Slovak asylum seekers arrived in Dover last year a firm of London solicitors had travelled to the town and started "dishing out" legal aid forms to claimants.

He also accused lawyers of "milking" the legal aid cases, which then had to be paid for again by the taxpayer when the Government-funded Immigration Advisory Service took over cases that go to tribunals.

The Government's consultation document - Control of Unscrupulous Immigration Advisers - also refers to 38 firms of solicitors among 250 groups offering advice who give "cause for concern". Mr Straw described Law Society controls in this area as unsatisfactory.

A Law Society spokesman said Mr Straw's attack was "bonkers" and said they had been at the forefront of trying to stamp out the bogus advisers. For two years they had asked for the names of the dubious lawyers concerned - but had never been given a name. Nor could the Home Office name the firm who allegedly went to Dover.

According to the paper, ministers favour a statutory regulatory body which would oversee a group of accredited advisory groups. Anyone charging for advice without a licence would face a large fine or possible jail and the body would be self-funded by membership fees. Mr Straw said there was a case for lawyers to be included under the system.

Current abuses by advisers include charging large fees - up to pounds 6,000 though typically pounds 500 - for wrong advice, telling applicants to lie on official forms, losing documents and passports, intimidation, theft and even sexual assault of applicants.

In one example sorted out by Bernie Grant MP a Jamaican woman paid more than pounds 1,000 to an self-appointed adviser who then told her to apply for political asylum. In fact the woman, who had learning difficulties, had a good case on compassionate grounds to be re-united with her family. It later emerged that her adviser had criminal convictions - and was later jailed here for rape.

Mr Grant yesterday welcomed news of the consultation. However, there is some concern among MPs and pressure groups that the matter is still only at consultation stage - and will not become law until the next parliamentary session at the earliest. As Mr Straw himself admitted, the issue was first raised by the Home Affairs select committee in 1992.

The pressure group Asylum Aid welcomed the document but its co-ordinator Alasdair Mackenzie added: "It is important that this does not deflect from the inherent flaws within the asylum process such as poor decision- making and lengthy delays."