Vulnerable asylum seekers are at risk of “serious detriment” from a complex asylum process and potentially “sloppy” work by immigration advisers, according to the Legal Services Consumer Panel (LSCP).
Legal regulators need to conduct research and gather data on problems asylum seekers face accessing legal advice, the quality of advice and the experiences of applicants, the panel urged.
In a ‘scoping note’ summarising the evidence available on consumer detriment in the immigration area – similar to an earlier study of the experiences of deaf and hard of hearing people – the LSCP echoed concerns raised by the Legal Services Board in July.
Then, the board warned the Bar Standards Board and Solicitors Regulation Authority that relying on their codes of conduct to regulate immigration was insufficient and demanded they “take immediate action to mitigate the risks to consumers in the provision of immigration advice and services” or face enforcement action. It approved the approach of ILEX Professional Standards.
The LSCP paper said asylum applicants are “extremely vulnerable” and face a complex process, a predicament exacerbated by problems in locating advisers, despite more than 4,500 being regulated to give immigration advice. No single piece of research exists covering the experiences of asylum seekers with legal services, it observed.
There was evidence of a shortfall in the quality of legal advice, but good-quality advice was highly significant to the outcome of an application, both initially and at appeal. The LSCP highlighted a finding in June 2012 by the Criminal Cases Review Commission that in 11 cases asylum seekers and refugees were not properly advised by their lawyers of defences available to them. The CCRC also speculated there could be many other similar cases.
The panel acknowledged that the quality of advice could be affected by incentives in the legal aid system and that advisors do not have sufficient time to examine cases thoroughly. But in other cases “it appears that work carried out is sloppy and puts claimants at risk”.
Concluding, it said: “The available evidence suggests the process is complex, lengthy and difficult for applicants, who face a serious risk of detriment. There appear to be particular problems in accessing advice and support, as well as concerns about the quality of advice provided.”
It continued: “Further research and data collection carried out by the regulators of immigration advice is needed. This could focus on gathering relevant and up-to-date information on access to and quality of advice in the experience of asylum applicants (demand side).
“On the supply side, regulators may wish to look at the experience of those providing asylum advice to discover the reason why gaps appear to remain in the provision of advice, and to find out more about the experience of those providing frontline advice.”
Regulators should focus efforts on building a stronger evidence base in relation to barriers to accessing legal advice and support and concerns about quality where advice is accessed, the panel added.