The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has launched a bid to regulate non-lawyer immigration advisers.
However, at the same time the body that oversees them – the Office for the Immigration Services Commissioner (OISC) – is seeking to take over the regulation of specialist lawyers.
The clash comes in responses to a Legal Services Board (LSB) consultation which found that there is likely to be “significant consumer detriment” in the complex way immigration work is currently regulated.
If this cannot be remedied, the LSB said it may begin a statutory investigation into making the work a reserved legal activity. Immigration is unique as a legal activity that can only be provided by regulated individuals but is not reserved. Those who provide advice but are not a solicitor, barrister or chartered legal executive have to be regulated by OISC.
The SRA said that if the LSB decides immigration should be reserved, it is “well positioned, and would welcome the opportunity, to extend our regulatory reach to those immigration service providers who are currently regulated by OISC”.
However, in her response, immigration services commissioner Suzanne McCarthy said OISC regulates far more organisations providing immigration advice and is the specialist regulator for the sector.
She continued: “Given that the LSB is not seeking to make things more complicated, and given that you are concerned with work rather than title, the obvious solution would therefore be for my office to assume full responsibility for the regulation of all activity relating to the provision of immigration advice and services, regardless of the adviser’s status.”
The SRA noted that OISC does not have equivalent powers to the SRA to close down a failed business in an orderly way, “putting consumers’ interests at risk”. Ms McCarthy said “such powers could be acquired through legislation without in any way complicating or confusing the regulatory regime”.
She also argued that OISC has a “less confusing and more consumer-focused” complaints-handling scheme than the legal sector because her office considers both service and conduct complaints, whereas responsibility for those in the law is split between the Legal Ombudsman and the frontline regulators respectively.
In its response, the Law Society said that “if strong evidence was provided that suggested regulatory gaps would be best covered by making the provision of immigration advice and services a reserved activity… we would not have significant objections in principle”.
However, the society, along with the Bar Standards Board (BSB), questioned whether the LSB had provided the evidence to justify immigration work receiving special treatment.
The LSB said it expected the frontline regulators to “implement coherent, evidence-based approaches to manage risks to consumers and the public interest in the provision of immigration advice and services” by the end of 2012. , the BSB said this was premature and potentially disproportionate.