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A research commissioned into the quality of legal advice for asylum seekers has identified urgent need for improvement with almost half of all clients unhappy with their solicitors. The research for the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) and Legal Ombudsman, carried out by MigrationWork CIC in collaboration with Refugee Action and Asylum Research Consultancy, drew on interviews conducted with 123 asylum seekers as well as case reviews and discussions with community groups.

According to the study, only 49.5% of asylum seekers were satisfied with the quality of legal services they received from their advisers, who often failed to explain how the asylum process worked, were unclear on costs, used interpreters that spoke the wrong language and lacked the relevant legal knowledge to act in their clients’ best interest. Some lawyers were found to have inadequate skills and expertise to take proper instructions from clients, who due to their traumatic past often provide incoherent accounts of their reasons for fleeing their country and risk to undermine their own claim.

Vulnerability of asylum seekers was a recurrent theme in the report. The language barrier, the difficulty to adjust to a new country, the traumatic events they might have experienced and potential mental health problems make asylum seekers particularly vulnerable service users.

The report found that asylum seekers often turned to their communities for advice on legal representatives and were signposted to poor quality or unregulated advisers, with dubious referrals being made by interpreters receiving financial incentives from solicitors. When unhappy with the services they received, asylum seekers were found to be generally unaware they could make a complaint against their legal advisor or chose not to do so for fear of negative repercussions on their asylum claim.

Their vulnerability was exacerbated by a complex legal service market regulated by four different bodies (the SRA, the Bar Standards Board, the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives, and the Office of the Immigration Services Commissioner) affecting the ability of asylum seekers to make informed choices as to whom they should appoint as their solicitor.

Over the past few years, more and more solicitors have been referred to the SRA by the courts, following episodes of lawyers misleading judges, giving the wrong advice to clients or making meritless applications to the Court.

Commenting on the study, Paul Philip, Chief Executive of the SRA, said:

Asylum seekers requiring legal advice and support are particularly vulnerable and may be fleeing torture, imprisonment and death. The consequences of getting it wrong can be tragic and we will work with other organisations and law firms themselves to tackle any issues and to help improve the services they offer.

Following the publication of the report, the SRA has decided to investigate a number of firms and undertake more in-depth research. The Law Society has promised to update its immigration and asylum accreditation scheme to improve the quality of advice.

Profile photo of Caterina Franchi About Caterina Franchi
Caterina is a Solicitor at Wilson Solicitors LLP. She specialises in immigration, asylum and human rights law. She volunteers for the Liberty Advice Line.

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  • Christopher Lennon January 20, 2016 2:46 pm

    “Asylum seekers requiring legal advice and support are particularly vulnerable and may be fleeing torture, imprisonment and death.” – Paul Philip, Chief Executive of the SRA, who forgot to mention an even larger category, by all accounts, that is, economic migrants.

    Is it surprising that half of all asylum seekers’ claims fail? After all, many of their stories are reported to be bogus.

    Statistically and by definition, do not half of all solicitors’ clients in contentious matters and proceedings end up unhappy, because they lose their cases?

    What is there to investigate?

  • Jo Wilding March 7, 2016 3:31 pm

    Christopher, is it not equally possibly that (a proportion of)the people who are reportedly “bogus” and “by all accounts economic migrants” are actually people whose asylum claims were messed up by legal advisers. The research doesn’t say the 50% who were unhappy were those who had been refused asylum and lost their appeals.

  • Christopher Lennon March 8, 2016 9:39 am

    Jo, that is naive; there is almost certainly some correlation between rejection of asylum claims and complaints about legal advisers. It also depends on what you mean by “messed up”. Failure to make false accounts sound convincing enough for the judge, perhaps?
    Which countries are these people coming from and why and how do they arrive in the UK?
    Genuine asylum seekers are supposed to be taken in by the nearest ‘safe’ country. Why is the UK, an island, in that position so often, apparently?
    Are we being taken advantage of? Should we insist all asylum applications must be made from outside the UK? Fine the airlines or ferry operators landing these people in the UK and send them back? I believe we already do that where they do not have travel papers, but the whole system needs tightening up. We ought not to have to deal with significant numbers of genuine asylum seekers. Refusal should be first response.It is largely an international scam; people trafficking.

  • Jo Wilding March 21, 2016 10:20 am

    Hi Christopher. You say “Genuine asylum seekers are supposed to be taken in by the nearest ‘safe’ country.” I’m not sure where you get that proposition from. There is nothing in the Refugee Convention which says a person can only seek refuge in the nearest safe country. Often that is as far as people can afford or manage to travel – as in the many thousands of Somali refugees who reached Kenya, Ethiopia or Uganda or the millions of Syrian refugees in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. So if your argument is that a person seeking refuge can only go to the nearest country, that’s wrong in law. If it is that neighbouring countries have a special responsibility to absorb them, clearly they already do. But that only takes us so far. In a crisis like that in Syria, the capacity of Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan to look after people can be exhausted and people who have escaped war (just like any other people) can’t reaonably be expected to just accept that the only alternative is a dangerously overcrowded refugee camp, when the war drags on and on and prospects of going home get thinner and thinner.

    So the fact that someone has travelled a long way has no bearing on the truthfulness of someone’s asylum claim or the genuineness of their need for protection.

    As for the assumption that “messed up” means failing to make a false account sound convincing, I think you’re missing some important points. Where the advisor doesn’t take a full statement from the client, or any statement at all, or where they fail to go through the interview record and make sure there aren’t any interpreting errors, that can and often does lead to a person being disbelieved. For example if someone is asked “what did your paternal uncle do?” but that’s mistranslated as “what did your father do?” (quite a common occurrence) then the answer explaining what the person’s father did may conflict with what they later say when the question is translated correctly. Then the refusal letter says “you said your father was a teacher. Later you changed your mind and said it was your uncle who was a teacher (or politician or journalist or whatever it is). Your inability to remain consistent about this fundamental aspect of your asylum claim is damaging to your credibility.”

    Seems obvious, but if that is left uncorrected, quite a lot of judges will assume the client is lying because they had legal advice and therefore the lawyer would have corrected the error sooner.

    And there is no evidence at all of a correlation between people’s claims being rejected and them saying in interview that they were unhappy about their advisers (because these were interviews, not formal complaints). Some of those whose claims were still undecided or who had been granted asylum were unhappy with their advisers and some whose claims were unsuccessful still felt the lawyer had done their best.

    • Christopher Lennon March 22, 2016 7:33 pm

      I stand corrected Jo, if I am wrong, but I must have heard or read it somewhere. Unlike the ‘immigration industry’, working so hard to change the demographic make up of Western Europe and strain public amenities and services to the utmost, I take the firm view most asylum claims brought in the UK are bogus, so it does not surprise me a high proportion fail and it ought to be more, probably. I should mention, I happen to have spent four years working in one of the countries many of these people come from and I believe those leaving, including some I know personally, are economic migrants who do their own country a disservice by deserting it. So when I read that half of these people are unhappy with their lawyers, I am inclined to think, as someone might have said, in a different context altogether, ‘well, they would be, wouldn’t they?’

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