The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) is investigating nine criminal law firms over failures in advice to asylum seekers, it has emerged.
The Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) submitted a confidential report to the regulator earlier this year after the convictions of 19 asylum seekers were overturned on appeal.
“The cases involve asylum seekers using fake documentation to gain access to the country,” a spokesman for the SRA said. “If they used their genuine travel documents, they would be unlikely to be granted safe passage out of their home country.”
Under section 31 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, people claiming asylum have a defence to a limited range of offences, including the possession of fake passports.
The SRA spokesman said the CCRC had given details of 17 cases where a defence lawyer did not use the section 31 defence. Seven of these cases did not fit the regulator’s criteria, for example because they happened before 1999. As a result, the SRA was “dealing specifically with 10 individuals and nine firms”.
He added that the SRA was in the process of obtaining evidence on advice given to defendants, which involved investigating evidence that dated back up to 14 years.
At the same time, in a separate initiative, the SRA has launched a major research project on the quality of immigration advice given to asylum seekers.
It will 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.
Sue Lukes, a director of MigrationWork, said: “Our brief is to give the SRA a sound factual basis on which to base their approach to regulating, by identifying both the risks involved in providing asylum legal advice and the key elements of good practice in this difficult and important area.
“We hope then to make some recommendations and, in particular, work with the SRA to identify where they and others can make changes to promote such good practice.”
Ms Lukes said case reviews would “definitely not” be focusing on cases where concerns or complaints had been raised, as that was a matter for regulators, not the research team.
“We hope and expect that they will enable us to highlight not only what changes might best be made but also how to support solicitors who have developed a lot of good practice in the face of often significant difficulties.”