The Solicitors Regulation Authority is to review the quality of legal support available to asylum seekers, after research part-funded by a US foundation uncovered evidence of solicitors ‘overcharging or deliberately obfuscating costs’.

The regulator yesterday published a study carried out by immigration consultancies MigrationWork, Refugee Action and Asylum Research Consultancy. Although it highlights some good practice, the study also found that almost half of asylum seekers interviewed were dissatisfied with the service they received from solicitors.

According to the SRA, the research report was co-funded by Unbound Philanthropy and the Legal Ombudsman. Unbound Philanthropy, set up by US billionaires Bill Reeves and Debbie Berger, describes itself as ‘a private grant-making foundation working to move the needle on immigration, integration and the wellbeing of receiving communities, in the United States and the United Kingdom’.

In the US the foundation has attracted controversy for funding groups protesting against presidential hopeful Donald Trump. It is also a major donor to the International Rescue Committee, headed by former Labour politician David Miliband. 

SRA board member Professor Shamit Saggar declares on his register of interests that he is an adviser to Unbound Philanthropy.

Among poor practices cited in the SRA report is ‘concerning’ evidence about the role of interpreters to introduce clients to particular firms or solicitors. ‘This is often done in return for financial remuneration and the promise of further work and restricts the opportunity for asylum seekers to research potential providers and exercise real choice.’

The research also found a ‘lack of clarity’ about charging. ‘At the lower end of the market, concerns were raised about value for money with potentially poor advisers overcharging for their services.’

The SRA said that in response to the study ‘we are now investigating some firms’. It will also carry out a ‘thematic review’, as part of its ‘commitment to improving knowledge about vulnerable consumers’.

Paul Philip, chief executive, said: ‘This is a sensitive and complex area of law and we need to better understand how it is working in practice, and that is why it is right to commit to an in-depth study. ‘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.’

Law Society president Jonathan Smithers commented: ‘Asylum law is a challenging and complex area in which high quality work is carried out by many solicitors despite debilitating cuts in legal aid funding. Any shortcomings in the quality of advice provided to often vulnerable asylum seekers need to be addressed.’  

He said that the Society is updating its Immigration and Asylum Accreditation Scheme to ensure that solicitors who wish to work under legal aid contracts can demonstrate the required legal and professional knowledge and understanding. ‘We recently published a practice note for solicitors on immigration judicial review and statutory defences available to asylum seekers who may be charged with document offences.’