Immigration advisers to be set ethics tests

In the second of a new series on racial tensions spreading in Britain, Robert Verkaik reports on the crackdown on abuse of legal aid
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The Independent Online

All immigration lawyers are to undergo strict new checks in a bid to weed out unscrupulous ones who take on clients who have no reasonable hope of winning asylum in Britain.

In the tests to be announced today, solicitors will engage in role-playing exercises to show them how to spot bogus asylum-seekers and give advice. Solicitors who fail or who are shown to be unscrupulous or incompetent will be excluded from practising under the legal aid scheme. The assessments, which include tests on immigration procedure, law, and ethics, are part of a wider clampdown on abuses of the £174m-a-year legal aid system.

Crispin Passmore, head of immigration services at the Legal Services Commission, which has joint responsibility with the Law Society for the compulsory assessments, said: "We must make sure the public has confidence in the system and solicitors are not just making money out of vulnerable people." A private company would perform the tests.

From April 2005, the commission will require all advisers working in immigration - solicitors and non-solicitors -to pass the tests. Accreditation will consist of three levels: accredited caseworker, senior caseworker and advanced caseworker. Advanced-level advisers with high levels of knowledge and skills will earn a 5 per cent rise.

Janet Paraskeva, the Law Society's chief executive, said: "We are determined to identify and root out poor-quality advisers taking advantage of the system." Clare Dodgson, chief executive of the Legal Services Commission, said: "Legal aid should be a first-rate service that offers quality advice to people in need. It is also about rewarding those who drive up standards for immigrants and asylum-seekers, who are frequently forced to flee oppressive situations in their home countries."Last month a senior judge attacked lawyers who string out legal appeals for failed asylum-seekers to keep them in Britain as long as possible. Mr Justice Collins accused them of "delaying the inevitable" by leaving it to the last minute to lodge appeals and requests for legal aid.

There are concerns that the legal system is being widely abused. Even asylum-seekers with the most hopeless cases cannot be deported until they have exhausted the lengthy appeal process.