Immigration barristers unanimously agree that their solicitor colleagues provide poor-quality work and fail to deliver the appropriate level of care, according to a report by the bar regulator.
But the Law Society has responded robustly, stressing that the bar's view is 'inevitably skewed' because it is in cases that go to court where problems arise, while many cases are satisfactorily resolved without barrister involvement.
A review by the Bar Standards Board into the immigration legal services market says that because barristers are the last link in the supply chain, they are often ‘too late to rectify’ poor advice given to clients earlier in the process.
The ‘unanimous and strong’ opinion of immigration chambers interviewed for the report was that clients ‘repeatedly experience poor standards of service from solicitors’.
Complaints include poor-quality work and files, with papers missing; delays or outright failure to pay barristers, including from legal aid money; and the level of care given in preparing clients for court.
Respondents also criticised solicitors for sending papers over to chambers very late on the day before hearings.
The report, which was produced with input from consumer organisations and other regulators, also highlighted concerns over the fees charged by providers of immigration legal services.
According to barristers interviewed in the report, there is evidence that providers are attracting clients with low initial fees and then raising fees, while others are ‘marking up’ barristers' fees.
Earlier this year a review by Solicitor Regulation Authority said it had uncovered evidence of solicitors ‘overcharging or deliberately obfuscating costs’.
The BSB review also raises concerns that the growth of direct access work in immigration law could weaken market controls to protect consumers from poor services.
It says: ‘While solicitors are “repeat clients” and will not offer further work to barristers who provide poor services, individual [direct access] clients tend to be “single use” consumers.’
The report notes that a large number of unregulated people are operating in the immigration market and providing advice.
In particular it raises concerns about unregistered barristers, and people without legal qualifications, such as accountants, setting themselves up as ‘introducer types’ and giving legal advice.
Director of regulatory policy at the BSB, Ewen MacLeod said: ‘This review has given us valuable insights into the experiences of immigration clients – we were pleased to undertake this work collaboratively with consumer organisations, regulators and barristers working in this area.’
Law Society chief executive Catherine Dixon commented: 'Immigration solicitors provide expert advice to often very vulnerable clients at a time of crisis. Very many applications submitted by solicitors are successful and are resolved without barrister involvement. Immigration and asylum law is a challenging and complex area.
'High-quality work is carried out by solicitors and other legal practitioners despite significant cuts in legal aid funding.'
She added: 'There are aspects of the BSB’s report - for instance the vulnerability of immigration and asylum clients, the impact of changing legislation - that will ring true with immigration practitioners whatever their professional background. However, a barrister’s role in the process is limited and inevitably their view is skewed by the fact that the cases which do go to court can be those where problems have arisen for a multiplicity of reasons.'
Dixon noted the report's acknowledgement of the rise in legal complexity in immigration, but said it fails to recognise the 'exponential increase' in the procedural complexity of applications. 'Application forms are 5-10 times the length they were 10 years ago. Information sources are poorly designed and often contain out of date information,' she added.
'In the small number of cases where there is a genuine concern about the quality of the advice, these should be reported to the regulator. As the professional body for solicitors we will continue to offer guidance and support to practitioners working in this complex and often stressful field,' she said.