Lawyers 'ran pounds 1m racket in false passports'

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A BARRISTER and a solicitor ran a million-pound passport racket preying on the fears of wealthy Hong Kong residents desperate to leave before China takes over in 1997, a court was told yesterday.

Many documents were forged and the Home Office was fooled repeatedly, Southwark Crown Court was told. For nearly three years the solicitor, James Walker, 48, and the barrister, Paul Samrai, 37, got away with the racket, which enabled dozens of people to get the right to live in Britain, Brendan Finucane, for the prosecution said.

He alleged that the lawyers' company, charging about pounds 40,000 an application, raked in a total of pounds 1.36m, most of which was obtained illegally. Mr Finucane told the jury that Mr Samrai, along with Mr Walker - the only one before the court - and others, set up an operation based in Hong Kong called Opportunities UK Ltd. Mr Samrai saw customers in the colony after they had been referred to him by a rich Chinese businessman, and then forwarded documentation, which was often false, to Mr Walker in Britain.

Once the documents reached the solicitor's office at a central London law firm called Brain and Brain, Mr Walker signed them knowing many were bogus, Mr Finucane alleged.

Trading on his profession's reputation for trust and integrity, Mr Walker submitted them to an 'overworked' Home Office immigration department at Croydon, south London, as part of applications for the 'right of abode' in Britain or 'indefinite leave to remain' in the country, Mr Finucane said. 'Certificates of entitlement' were later issued.

It was then a case of 'Bob's your uncle. They are British citizens, all for half a million Hong Kong dollars, just a few forged documents, a dishonest solicitor - it is dead easy'.

Mr Finucane said Mr Samrai and Mr Walker set up the business without any dishonest intentions. But it soon became clear that they could not make enough money legitimately, so they allegedly turned their attentions to people who were anxious to leave Hong Kong when China took over, but had problems meeting British residency requirements.

Mr Finucane said their wealthy customers - none of whom suspected anything underhand was going on - either had not been in Britain for the requisite five years before making their applications, had never visited Britain at all, or could not prove they were qualified to stay in the country.

Mr Finucane said Mr Walker, of Goring Heath, near Reading, even signed statements falsely declaring he had known applicants for up to three years. Often he had not even met them.

Mr Walker denies one charge of conspiracy to use false instruments and four of conspiracy to defraud between January 1990 and September 1992. Mr Finucane said Mr Samrai, of Warwick, would be giving evidence for the Crown. The jury would also hear witnesses giving evidence from Hong Kong by live video link - the first time this had been done from the colony.

The trial was adjourned until today.

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