Revealed: vulnerable residents falling victim to ‘misleading’ immigration advice

Stamping out bad practice: report condemns misleading advice. Photograph: Toynbee Hall

irector of income at Toynbee Hall, who commissioned the investigation.

“They’re living in limbo and procuring advice that does nothing to provide the certainty they crave.” Mr Triggs said poor quality advice makes the experience “even more stressful than it should be” for users.

Toynbee Hall, which supports deprived communities in the East End, said many victims of the specious advice were extremely vulnerable.

“I have been here for 22 years and am a refugee but my ex-partner stole my papers. I am trying to get hold of these,” a Congolese interviewee told the charity.

Some had suffered domestic abuse and were trying to sort immigration status out so they could leave their abuser. Others had been trafficked to the UK as domestic slaves, and were now trapped.

Mr Triggs said the team were not surprised by the findings. “We were aware of mounting anecdotal evidence that immigration advice varied in quality – lots of it extremely poor – and we wanted to validate these anecdotes.”

Forced to pay

Many immigrants are now being forced to pay for advice as a result in cuts to legal aid, the charity said.

In April 2012, the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) took immigration advice ‘out of scope’ of legal aid, meaning it is no longer funded and individuals must pay themselves.

“Obviously of most benefit to users would be a re-injection of money back into the system. Where LASPO removed legal aid, there’s been a great paucity of money within free advice service in Tower Hamlets.”

The researchers, who went undercover in a mystery shopping exercise, found some examples of good, free provision available. But all of them were overstretched.

“Until money pumped into system from somewhere its unlikely that this situation is going to change,” said Mr Triggs.

Unregulated

The charity discovered one in ten providers of advice were unregulated. To offer immigration advice, businesses must be regulated by either the Solicitors Regulatory Authority (SRA) or the official regulator, the Office of the Immigration Services Commissioner (OISC).

The report recommends Tower Hamlets or OISC set up a database of all the providers.

Mr Triggs said: “There was complete absence of any up-to-date, good quality information about who is providing what type of services. The OISC claim to do this but it is inaccurate.

“The fact that 29 per cent of advisers are providing inaccurate advice is worrying in itself. But that suggests even some of the regulated bodies are offering poor advice too.”