The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) is to investigate the quality of legal advice provided to asylum seekers, it has emerged.
The move comes after the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) submitted a confidential report to the regulator earlier this year on overturned convictions of asylum seekers, following references it made to the appeal courts.
In a paper to its regulatory risk committee, the SRA said the report “identified an apparent failure by defence lawyers to advise genuine asylum seekers on the scope of the potential defences under the law”.
The regulator said the CCRC had also referred “specific cases” to it for possible investigation.
Concerns about the quality of legal advice for asylum seekers have been expressed by Legal Services Consumer Panel, which criticised “sloppy” work in 2012, and the Legal Services Board, which was unhappy with how asylum lawyers were regulated.
In response, the SRA is launching a major research project, to be carried out by an external consortium made up of MigrationWork, Refugee Action, Asylum Research Consultancy and Jo Wilding, an immigration barrister from Garden Court Chambers.
Interim findings will be provided to the SRA in late October and the final report published at the end of this year.
Among its objectives are to “identify barriers to effective use of legal services” for asylum seekers and highlight aspects associated with a “higher risk of poor service or inadequate quality”.
The SRA said providers of asylum advice would be invited to take part in an online survey, followed by in-depth interviews. Refugee Action will speak to 130 asylum seekers in four locations about their experiences, while Ms Wilding will carry out 75 case reviews relating to individuals or firms where “concerns, issues and complaints” have been identified.
MigrationWork, a community interest company, has been given the task of determining a “meaningful definition of quality” that is readily understood by contributors to the research.
The SRA said a “clear distinction” needed to be made between services that it regulated and those regulated by the Office of the Immigration Services Commissioner – immigration is unique as a legal activity that can only be provided by regulated individuals but is not reserved.
The SRA highlighted, under the heading of “challenges”, a potential problem for researchers in getting access to files. The regulator said it could only compel firms to provide information during formal investigatory and regulatory action. Providing information for research was at the discretion of the solicitor or firm and would need the express consent of each asylum seeker.
Additional funding for the research will come from the Legal Ombudsman and Unbound Philanthropy, which funds projects to improve legal advice for migrants in the US and UK.
A spokesperson for the CCRC said it had referred a total of 22 convictions to the Court of Appeal and the Crown Courts, relating to offences connected with entry or exit from the UK.
“The appeals in 19 of those cases were successful, two are yet to be heard, and one was withdrawn after the reference was made,” he said.