Immigration-law firms 'over-charging by millions, and failing asylum-seekers'

Lawyers advising asylum-seekers are overcharging the state by millions of pounds a year, and some place vulnerable clients at risk of unfair removal from the UK, a parliamentary report says. Legal aid bills for immigration work jumped from £58m in 2000-01 to a record £138m in 2001-02 and are to rise again this year.

But the public accounts committee investigating the cost of civil legal aid, said some immigration-law firms had been involved in making "unreasonable claims and [there was] evidence of work that had placed clients at risk".

They said the Legal Services Commission, the body which oversees legal-aid payments in England and Wales, "acknowledged the committee's concerns about the quality of advice on asylum issues" given by some firms. In 2001-02 the Commission recovered £2.1m in overpayments in asylum and other civil claims and cut law firms' bills by a further £4.25m. One firm had to repay £700,000 out of £2.3m. In February, a High Court judge condemned solicitors for "milking" the system by fighting hopeless cases for asylum-seekers.

Ministers are introducing measures that penalise solicitors who bring meritless claims and are looking at ways to reduce the rising costs of criminal and immigration legal aid. The Legal Services Commission told the committee that in cases where asylum-seekers had been "put at risk", the law firm concerned would have its contract "terminated immediately". Those who had "placed public money at risk" would be given six months "to improve or have their contract terminated". The LSC has a new "peer review" system where experienced lawyers scrutinise work done by immigration-law firms to determine whether the state is getting value for money.

In the public accounts committee report, Edward Leigh MP, the chairman, said suppliers of legal aid provide an important service to some of the most disadvantaged people but this good service "may be tarnished by poor-quality advice and persistent over-claiming of costs by some." Firms that consistently underperform or overcharge should have their contracts terminated.

Richard Miller, director of the Legal Aid Practitioners Group, said: "It is unfortunate that only two weeks ago the Government proposed banning firms from providing more than five hours' work to asylum-seekers. The only firms that would be able to survive with such a limit are the very firms the [committee] believes, rightly, should be excluded." The group's chairman David Emmerson, added: "The overwhelming majority of legal-aid lawyers are honest, hardworking and of high quality."