Rogue solicitors offering fake advice to scam migrants out of life savings
‘Advice sharks’ taking cash from vulnerable people for immigration applications that have no hope of being accepted
Migrants across the UK are being preyed upon by immigration advisers and solicitors who are taking advantage of a lack of protections for advice seekers.
These rogue practitioners are charging extortionate fees for free application forms and putting in spurious applications and appeals that have no chance of success.
“I don’t know how I survived,” said one victim who was left penniless by a scammer – whom he was too scared to report for fear of deportation.
The promise of an easy route to settlement led to another migrant, Mary*, being scammed out of £1,500 and wasting a further £2,000 on Home Office application fees.
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Mary arrived in the UK on a temporary visa with her partner and their infant son and was referred to an immigration solicitor by a friend. The solicitor said that because she had a baby, she’d automatically get the right to remain. He said he was going to make a claim under the Human Rights Act, based on the right to family and private life.
Then he told her to pay him £3,500.
“It was a lot of money,” Mary said. “My dad had just passed away. And so I used money from him. My mum lent me £2,000, and we had some small savings. So we managed to come up with the £3,500.”
A year later, the Home Office confirmed her application had been denied. The solicitor gave Mary an excuse, and convinced her to lodge an appeal. The appeal was also denied.
“And again, the solicitor said, ‘Oh, no, don’t worry. We’ll do our judicial review. It will cost £2,000’,” she said. He called her on several occasions, asking her to pay him because she urgently needed to put in the application: “He kept saying that if I didn’t put in an application, that we would be sent home.”
But feeling that something wasn’t quite right, Mary went to a different solicitor.
“The only words he said were, ‘There’s no chance.’ He told me to come back when my child has been here for seven years, and not to pay the other solicitor for a judicial review.”
Within a few weeks she had a call from a caseworker at the Home Office, who told her that the first solicitor – to whom she’d paid thousands of pounds – had reported her for staying in the UK without the right to remain. Mary was told to leave the UK and return to her home country.
“We moved house, because I was so scared,” Mary said. Shortly after the move, the Home Office came looking for her at her previous address.
“I trusted him because he was a solicitor. We just believed his word. I’m sure this is happening to a lot of people,” she said.
An area where criminal activity is rife
Mary’s story is not unusual. Such practices are becoming more common and are particularly targeting EU migrants, claims Catherine Barnard, professor of EU law at the University of Cambridge. She said these advisers “appeared to offer [people] a quick solution, often in their own language. Many have lived to regret this.”
Barnard’s belief is backed up by local migrant organisations, which frequently come across similar cases in their work.
Francesca Humi is the advocacy and campaigns officer at Kanlungan Filipino Consortium, a charity that works for the welfare of Filipino and other migrant communities in the UK. She conducted some exclusive analysis for openDemocracy based on her casework.
Of the 48 clients she has provided support for since 2021, 20, or 41%, had been scammed by a rogue solicitor or someone posing as an immigration adviser.
Four clients lost over £1,000, and two lost £3,000. Among those who’d been scammed, two had been trafficked to the UK and forced into modern-day slavery.
Jayne Mercer, the chief executive of the Community Integration and Advocacy Centre in Hull, said she’d seen “hundreds” of individuals who’d been defrauded across her 20-year career.
And John Tuckett, who heads up the government’s Office of the Immigration Services Commissioner (OISC), recently told the Free Movement podcast: “I’ve never come across an area [immigration advice] where criminal activity is so rife.”
A toothless regulator
In the UK, to be legally entitled to give immigration advice, you must be either a solicitor, a barrister or a qualified immigration adviser. The OISC monitors qualified immigration advisers and polices unregistered individuals.
The OISC receives its funding directly from the Home Office, but OISC officials have complained about the Home Office’s reluctance to properly resource the body. In its 2016-17 annual report, Ian Leigh, the then deputy commissioner of the OISC, wrote: “Unacceptable delay in decision-making on the part of the Home Office on numerous fronts has increasingly threatened the integrity of a fundamentally sound governance regime.”
One such example of Home Office failures is that the Immigration Services Commissioner post was left vacant for nearly four years. John Tuckett was eventually installed in July 2019.
Jo Wilding, a barrister and academic, said the OISC is “massively under-resourced and doesn’t have the time or staff to seek out unregulated advisers”.
Since 2016, just 49 individuals have been convicted for immigration fraud in cases brought by the OISC. It secured just eight convictions in 2021, half the number it achieved in 2016.
Too scared to report fraud
Mary said she didn’t report after her experience. “I was scared that if I made a report, I would be sent home. That was my fear.”
Edward* was also too scared to report the man who scammed him out of £800. He arrived in the UK on a work visa. But when that visa expired, he went to an unregulated adviser for help.
This man charged Edward £800 for an application for a student visa, and took his passport from him. Edward soon realised the application was destined to fail, and didn’t pay the further £2,800 that the man asked him for.
“I didn’t confront him because I didn’t want him to reveal my identity. I was afraid he would reveal me as an overstayer,” he explained.
It was at this point that things went downhill for Edward.
“My life started to become worse. My world became so small… I don’t know how I survived,” he said. He couldn’t get work and had to rely on friends for food and shelter.
This fear of reporting is something caseworkers hear frequently. Annie Campbell Viswanathan, the director of Bail for Immigration Detainees, said, “Clients get very, very nervous about complaining. They are very vulnerable.”
Legal aid cuts have left people vulnerable
The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 removed legal aid from almost all immigration cases not relating to asylum or detention. According to Jo Wilding, “The lack of access to free or low-cost advice forces people into the hands of poor-quality or unqualified advisers.”
It was this lack of access to free, good-quality advice that led to Elizabeth* being defrauded out of £600. Her first application for indefinite leave to remain had been denied by the Home Office, so she sought out a new immigration adviser.
This adviser told her to put in an application for an administrative review to challenge the refusal, and charged her £500. He then invited her for a consultation, costing a further £100, and convinced her to put in a new application for a visa.
After that consultation, she spoke with a local caseworker from a charity who advised her against pursuing the application.
“I found out that he isn’t really a legitimate solicitor,” she said. “I feel sad – because I can’t do anything to get my money back.”
Mark Seymour, a caseworker with The Gap project in Newport, said: “Many [immigrants] don’t have a great understanding of the system. And the question is, who is there to explain it to them?”
Complex rules, complex applications
Judges have frequently remarked that the complexity of immigration law is unacceptable. Lord Justice Jackson wrote in a judgement that this area of law has “now achieved a degree of complexity which even the Byzantine emperors would have envied”.
Complex rules have brought with them highly complicated, expensive application processes. As the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) reported, the average cost of a regularisation application in France, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands or Germany is less than a tenth of the cost in the UK.
Because the applications are so complicated, and require so much evidence, migrants are often completely dependent on their adviser.
“There’s no notion of informed consent. Their agency is completely robbed,” said the Kanlungan Filipino Consortium’s Francesca Humi.
Edward is currently negotiating one such complicated visa application. He is pulling together evidence to apply for the right to residency as he has been in the UK for 20 years.
But he said the process is taxing: “The applications require so much proof, so much evidence. It’s very challenging for me. It’s going to take me a whole year to prepare for this.”
He’s also scared about putting in the application, or making a mistake on it, because he’s heard about the government’s plans to send asylum seekers to Rwanda.
“I hope they will not send me to Rwanda as well. It’s not good for people. It’s a punishment,” he said.
If you, or anyone you know, has had a bad experience with an immigration solicitor or adviser please contact [email protected]
*Names have been changed
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