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Rise in misconduct claims against immigration advisers – what (if anything) should we make of it?


By law, you are only allowed to practice as an immigration adviser if you are a member of a professional body. If you give wrong advice and a professional body finds against you, you can be struck off and prevented from practicing, or even – in the worst cases – prosecuted.

This of course raises interesting questions about how effectively this whole system is operating. Keen to know more, we tabled two written parliamentary questions on this issue (see here and here). The answers are interesting.

Two bodies are responsible for regulating immigration advisers. On the one hand, immigration advisers can choose to register with the Government’s own register, the Office of the Immigration Services Commissioner (OISC). Roughly 3,500-4,000 advisers in 1600-2,000 organisations are registrants of the OISC. Those regulated in this way are subject to the OISC’s complaints processes.

On the other hand, advisers have the alternative option of signing up to one of three other organisations which have been approved as registers – the Solicitors Regulation Authority, the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives Regulation and the Bar Standards Board. The number of advisers regulated in this way is unclear. There is still a system to investigate wrongdoing, but it is overseen by the Legal Ombudsman for England and Wales rather than the OISC.

The written answers provide a considerable amount of information on the complaints investigated by these two organisations and how many cases of wrongdoing are found.

Inevitably, the data collection policies for the Legal Ombudsman and OISC differ so you don’t get a consistent picture across the time series. For one, the OISC were only able to provide data up to 2014/15 whilst the Legal Ombudsman took us all the way to the end of February 2016. Nevertheless, the trends are all pointing in the same direction. I present all the information in three figures below. You can download the Excel spreadsheet here.

Figure 1: Complaints Processed by the Legal Ombudsman, 2010/11 to 2015/16 (Source: WPQ 28982, 8th March 2016).Immigration Misconduct Complain About Adviser - Legal Ombudsman

Figure 2: Complaints Processed by the Office of the Immigration Services Commissioner, 2009/10 to 2014/15 (Source: WPQ 28981, 29th February 2016).

Immigration Misconduct Complain About Adviser - Office of the Immigration Services Commissioner

Note that because the 2015/16 Legal Ombudsman figures only take us to the end of February, you should add 8.3% to that year (1/12th of 100%, i.e. an estimate of what will happen in March 16) – I would have marked this out with a line but the difference is so negligible that it’s not really necessary. Adjustment is necessary, however, for the 2009/10 figures: the Legal Ombudsman only started taking cases from October 2010, i.e. half-way through the year. So I double the figure for that year and mark this out on the chart. This of course assumes that these trends aren’t seasonal – a big assumption, I admit.

There are some clearly discernible trends. Both the Legal Ombudsman and the OISC have witnessed a big rise in substantiated claims over the past few years, but they peak at different years: for the Legal Ombudsman it’s 2014/15, whilst for the OISC it’s a year earlier, in 2013/14. Whilst both see a fall in later years, in neither case is this sufficient to bring it down to the level at the beginning of the time series, and the rise is particularly pronounced for the Legal Ombudsman – even when the adjustment is made.

Things get even more interesting when you look at the proportion of complaints which are substantiated. I set this out in Figures 3 and 4 below.

Figure 3: Proportion of Cases Investigated which Lead to Recommendations Made – Legal Ombudsman, 2010/11 to 2015/16 (Source: WPQ 28982, 8th March 2016).

2010/11 2011/12 2012/13 2013/14 2014/15 2015/16
Recommendations Made as % of Cases Investigated 25% 42% 39% 41% 51% 56%

Figure 4: Proportion of Complaints which are Substantiated by the Office of the Immigration Services Commissioner, 2009/10 to 2014/15 (Source: WPQ 28981, 29th February 2016).

2009/10 2010/11 2011/12 2012/13 2013/14 2014/15
Complaints 78 88 111 155 112 130
% Complaints Substantiated 21% 30% 38% 53% 42% 67%

In both cases, the trend is sharply upwards. Whilst roughly 20-25% of complaints about immigration advisers were actually substantiated at the beginning of the time series, now the figure is about 55%-65%. In the case of the OISC, this is led by a sharp fall in the number of complaints made: people are complaining less, but the complaints they are making are more successful than before.

I’m unsure of what, exactly, to make of all this data, but assuming these differences aren’t just random chance (they could be), three potential explanations spring to mind.

First, all this could actually be a good thing. The Legal Ombudsman and OISC may be getting more, not less, effective at what they do and finding against more practitioners. This strikes me as a particularly plausible explanation for the Legal Ombudsman’s figures, given that the organisation only started taking cases in Oct 2015 and it likely took some time to get things in order.

Second, there is the less palatable possibility that we’ve seen a flood of unscrupulous immigration advisers to the market, plying their trade on unwitting migrants in need of help with Home Office applications. They’re being found out, investigated and struck off.

Finally, it could have nothing to do with the advisors or the regulatory bodies at all. Over the past six years, Ministers have pushed through dramatic changes to the Home Office’s visas and immigration policies in a vain attempt to meet an unrealistic net migration reduction target. Migration advisers are potentially doing more things which could lead them to be struck off and dealing with considerably more sensitive cases.

Ultimately, I’m not confident enough with these figures to make a conclusive judgement on what’s going on here. All I will point out is that if explanation two and three were correct, you would expect to see a rise in complaints too – this hasn’t happened with the OISC. We might know more in future years as yet more immigration reforms take place, but for now, these figures will offer some food for thought.

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