Ten of the 40 law firms that took part in a Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) review of immigration services have been referred for possible disciplinary action after it found “significant shortcomings”.
The thematic review of immigration work said that, although generally firms were providing a good level of service, there were areas of concern that needed to be addressed.
Among other issues, the review identified poor record keeping and failures to keep proper training records. It also discovered a reluctance to report potential misconduct at other firms, despite this being a regulatory requirement.
The review was published alongside a guidance note to help improve how immigration firms dealt with clients and their cases.
Effective supervision of staff was one of the areas where the SRA found problems and it issued a separate guidance note on supervision applicable to all law firms.
The SRA asked 70 firms that provided immigration and/or asylum services to complete a short questionnaire and then selected 40 of them for an online meeting with the head of department. It followed this up with an in-person visit to 38 of them to speak with a fee-earner and review two of their files.
The regulator said it was generally satisfied with the quality of service provided, with the main area of improvement around recording on the file key information, such as an assessment of client vulnerability, and the strengths and weaknesses of the case, as well as making sure the clients understood them.
Further, most firms (26 out of 40) did not provide clients with information in their language of choice. While text and WhatsApp messages could help overcome language barriers – “for example, the client can then use Google Translate or ask family and friends to translate – they were not always recorded on the file.
The SRA found both firms and fee-earners had a good understanding of what could make a client vulnerable.
Examples of how they supported vulnerable clients included making sure not to overwhelm them during a meeting with too much information and trying to keep the number of times a client had to recount a traumatic event to a minimum.
The review said: “Concerns were raised to us by the Legal Ombudsman that some fee-earners may be taking advantage of consumers by accepting cash payments, often outside the office, without providing a receipt or with the intention of overcharging the client over the course of a matter.
“It is important that firms keep an appropriate record of cash payments received from clients and provide clients with a receipt so they can keep an audit trail of any cash payments made by them.”
Most firms interviewed would accept payment by cash, the SRA said, but only when made in the office. However, one firm was reported for disciplinary action because it could not show that it had appropriately recorded the receipt of a cash payment from the client.
The majority of files (47 out of 76) did not contain evidence of supervision; three fee-earners and eight heads of department received no supervision at all. Five firms were referred into the disciplinary process because the SRA was not satisfied with the supervision of fee-earners it did not directly authorise.
File audits were the most common method of supervision but the SRA identified concerns about their scope, recording and sharing of outcomes.
In relation to training and competency, a significant number of fee-earners were unable to provide a copy of their training records. Four firms were referred for disciplinary action as a result.
Firms were also referred for failing to provide clients with any complaints information, while some gave poor-quality information – one advised clients to complain to the Legal Complaints Service, which has been closed for more than a decade.
The review found widespread reluctance to report unacceptable advice or representation by other firms – only a quarter of heads of department and 37% of fee-earners described themselves as very willing to do this. Most said they had not reported another firm in the last three years.
Those who had were as likely to have raised the issue directly with the firm as with a regulator. Issues included making an application without the client’s knowledge, failing to submit an appeal, failing to transfer files or charging for the transfer, and overcharging or charging a client when they were eligible for legal aid.
“Anecdotally firms told us that it is not unusual for consumers of immigration and asylum legal services to change solicitors. This gives newly instructed firms an opportunity to review the work done by the previous solicitors.
“Firms told us that in some instances the work done on the files fell below their standards, although this did not prompt them to report a concern.”
Many fee-earners said they did not know how to make a complaint to the regulator.
SRA chief executive Paul Philip said: “Users of immigration and asylum legal services can be some of the most vulnerable people in society. The consequences of poor legal services can be particularly severe, long-lasting, and difficult to rectify for this group.
“Most solicitors do a good job, and we want to support firms to make sure they meet high standards, including when it comes to maintaining competence.
“Where we found firms falling short, we took the necessary action to address our concerns and to bring them into compliance with our requirements.”
The SRA said it would undertake a follow-up review in 12 to 18 months to understand the impact of the guidance and other steps it would take to promote good practice – this could include sampling providers’ training records or issuing a warning notice.