The government has upped its attacks on “crooked” immigration lawyers by unveiling a taskforce to increase enforcement action against those who help migrants exploit the system.
It said the professional enablers taskforce had been up and running for some months – bringing together regulatory bodies, law enforcement teams and government departments – but today was its “official launch”.
Home Secretary Suella Braverman will mark it by chairing a roundtable meeting with Lord Chancellor Alex Chalk, the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) and the Office of the Immigration Services Commissioner, “to reiterate the government’s drive to bring prosecutions against crooked immigration lawyers”.
Lawyers found to be coaching migrants on how to remain in the country by fraudulent means could be prosecuted under section 25 of the Immigration Act 1971, for ‘assisting unlawful immigration to the UK’, and face a sentence of up to life imprisonment – it was increased from a maximum of 14 years in last year’s Nationality and Borders Act.
The announcement comes two weeks after a Daily Mail investigation revealed lawyers who it claimed were coaching an undercover reporter posing as a client to lie about their story in an effort to game the immigration system.
Under pressure from the media and government, the SRA last week closed down three of the law firms involved.
The government acknowledged that “the vast majority of lawyers act with professionalism and integrity” but pointed to the Daily Mail reports as evidence that “a small minority have been helping illegal migrants stay in the UK by encouraging them to make false claims”.
The aim of the taskforce is to increase enforcement action against these lawyers and its work to date has been focused on “improving how intelligence and information is shared by regulators”.
The announcement went on: “Law enforcement are also working to bring fresh prosecutions against corrupt immigration lawyers who could face up to life in prison for assisting illegal migrants to remain in the country by deception.”
The taskforce has developed a training package for frontline staff in the immigration system to help them “identify and report suspect activity so they can support law enforcement to prosecute crooked immigration lawyers”.
It went on: “Working with industry bodies, the taskforce will disrupt the business models of firms that are enabling abuse of the immigration system.
“Their work is aimed at supporting enforcement action against corrupt lawyers by building stronger evidence and improving intelligence sharing, which is then passed on to industry bodies to investigate and bring to law enforcement for prosecution if necessary.
“Referrals to law enforcement have also been made where criminal activity is suspected. For example, the taskforce has uncovered a case in which an immigration firm is linked to one of the most wanted human traffickers, which has now been referred to the police.”
Ms Braverman said: “Crooked immigration lawyers must be rooted out and brought to justice. While the majority of lawyers act with integrity, we know that some are lying to help illegal migrants game the system. It is not right or fair on those who play by the rules.”
Lord Chancellor Alex Chalk added: “The accuracy and honesty of legal advice underpins the integrity of our world-leading legal system, so those who undermine it by encouraging deception must be held to account.
“This government is committed to stopping the boats – that means breaking the business model of criminal gangs and holding to account unscrupulous lawyers who aid and abet them by abusing the legal system.”
The announcement also referenced the Legal Services Board’s move to increase the fining powers of the SRA and other legal regulators, which again came off the back of the Daily Mail story. Ultimately, this will be for Mr Chalk to approve.
The taskforce will in time expand to look at other professional enablers – such as doctors, accountants and employers – who use their expertise to facilitate illegal migration, the government said.
Law Society deputy vice-president Richard Atkinson questioned what the government was actually announcing, given that the taskforce has been running for some months.
“The government and regulators should share intelligence about immigration advisers of all kinds if they have concerns. And, of course, action should be taken immediately if there is evidence of wrongdoing…
“The focus of the Home Office on a tiny minority of lawyers to which they are apparently applying considerable resources should not deflect from the fact that there remain significant backlogs in asylum claims or the unworkability of the Illegal Migration Act.”
Rubin Italia, a solicitor at London and Manchester firm Stokoe Partnership Solicitors, said: “All this policy seeks to do is justify the government’s attack on legitimate lawyers, who they hold responsible for challenging a number of their own policies including the Rwanda policy and Illegal Migration Bill. It helps feed false optics against lawyers while preventing genuine legal challenges.
“The actions of a few rogue lawyers is no justification to challenge their entire profession, and the focus of the Home Office should be on tackling the enormous backlog of asylum cases and using their resources to provide safe and workable immigration policies – not demonising those lawyers who act lawfully to challenge controversial policies.”