Minister attacks 'seamy' lawyers

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The Independent Online
THE LAW Society has asked Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, for greater powers to raid the offices of solicitors suspected of cheating their clients.

Details of the request emerged yesterday as the Home Office minister Mike O'Brien made a blistering attack on the legal profession for failing to root out "seamy", "corrupt", and "incompetent" immigration lawyers.

Mr O'Brien, himself a lawyer, demanded greater efforts from the Law Society and Bar Council in taking action to ensure that such lawyers were unable to continue working.

But Michael Mathews, chairman of the Law Society, said the profession did not have the powers to raid the offices of solicitors unless there was specific evidence of malpractice.

The Home Office has given the Law Society the names of 50 legal firms who are suspected of abusing the legal aid system and cheating clients by giving questionable immigration advice.

So far, the Office for the Supervision of Solicitors, the regulatory arm of the Law Society, has investigated only two. Mr Mathews said: "With just a list of names there is nothing we can do. Our powers don't enable us to investigate on just general intelligence."

Mr O'Brien's comments came during a robust defence of the Government's Immigration and Asylum Bill at the annual conference of the Immigration Advisory Service in London. He said: "There's a seamy side to [the legal] profession and I want that seamy side cleaned up. We don't want to have these advisers and lawyers providing this incompetent and sometimes corrupt advice continuing to practise. We expect the Law Society and the Bar to ensure that that is cleaned up."

The Bill, which has just completed its second reading in Parliament, has already set out plans for tight new controls to regulate immigration advisers, many of whom are not legally qualified.