By Uglobal Staff
Britain's legal system, with its flowery language, red robes, and powdered wigs, can seem somewhat comical to outsiders — or baroque and downright confusing to those seeking to navigate it. When it comes to immigration issues, there’s an added layer of complexity. The United Kingdom regulates immigration advisory services with three classes of advisers, who may or may not be lawyers, authorized to provide advice, fill out forms, and, in some cases, represent clients before immigration tribunals.
On the one hand, that means most immigration investors won’t have to deal with anyone wearing a wig. The traditional courtroom attire is only for judges and barristers — those lawyers who represent clients in high-level courts — while most immigration cases can be handled by solicitors (trained lawyers who handle matters other than courtroom litigation) or registered advisers, both of whom eschew robes and wigs in favor of regular business attire.
On the other hand, however, the multi-tier advisory system can prove confusing for would-be investors. The Office of the Immigration Services Commissioner, which regulates immigration advisory organizations and individual advisers, has 3,478 advisers on its books. Of those, 72 percent are Level 1 advisers, authorized to provide basic advice and help with paperwork on straightforward cases; 10 percent are Level 2 advisers capable of helping with more complex cases, such as seeking reviews of immigration decisions; and 18 percent are Level 3 advisers authorized to represent their clients at immigration tribunal hearings.
Many OISC-registered advisers are also trained solicitors who have attended law school and can provide a full range of legal services. Still, there’s no requirement that advisers have a legal qualification, and it’s possible to qualify as an adviser simply by taking a correspondence course and completing an online certification process.
That’s a feature, not a bug. When the advisory scheme was introduced in 1999, the government anticipated making high-quality immigration advice available at lower prices, ensuring that all visa applicants would be able to obtain the help they needed.
On the whole, that’s worked out well, said Shanara Chowdhury, a solicitor and Level 2 adviser with Sterling Immigration. “Most immigration work falls within the scope of OISC Level 1 and 2,” she said, so OISC-registered advisers can provide the full range of services that most immigration investors require.
Even in more complex cases, a Level 3 registered adviser can provide virtually any immigration service that a regular lawyer can offer, including representing applicants at immigration hearings, Chowdhury said. A recent rule-change also allows Level 3 advisers to instruct barristers on their client’s behalf, enabling them to supervise cases that require litigation in higher courts.
Despite this, questions have been raised in recent years about the reliability of immigration advisers, especially those who lack formal legal training, and the sector’s reputation has been tarnished by cases involving unqualified people posing as advisers, or registered advisers offering bad advice or illegal services.
OISC audited 364 advisers in 2015-16 and found that 59 percent needed more diligent client-care practices, and 55 percent failed to keep adequate records of their work. In addition, the body investigated 225 official complaints, about half of which were found to be well-founded, and used new powers, granted by parliament in 2014, to strike several advisers from its registry.
OISC also actively investigates unregistered immigration advisers, bringing 14 prosecutions in 2015-16, with two bogus advisers receiving jail sentences, and others receiving fines or other punishments for providing advice without authorization.
Still, OISC insists that its certification process is rigorous, with only about 25 percent of new Level 1 advisory applicants approved in 2015-16. By contrast, almost all serving advisers had their renewal applications approved, which OISC argues is a sign that most serving advisers are properly trained and qualified.
Advocates for the system said the OISC registry allows investors to more readily identify practitioners who are familiar with the intricacies of the UK immigration system. Some general practice solicitors are permitted to handle immigration paperwork without registering with OISC, but it’s often better to find immigration specialists who know their way around the Tier 1 investor visa system, said Qiyin Chuah of QC Immigration in London.
“Advisers with a proven track record are often in a better position to provide advice, as we specialize only in immigration law,” Chuah said.
“Level 3 advisers typically have a great deal of experience that has been amassed over the years,” she added. “The level of expertise is vital in determining which option is best.”
It’s true that there’s no substitute for experience, Chowdhury agreed. “Much depends on practical experience of filing applications for applicants from different countries, identifying possible issues, keeping up to date with changes in case law and government policy, regular attendance at seminars and continuing professional training events, and being a robust advocate,” she said.
That’s where registered immigration advisers can shine, Chowdhury said. “OISC accredited professionals practice immigration law exclusively, and many do file more applications than qualified attorneys who may be practicing two or more areas of law such as immigration and criminal law,” she said.
That’s also an argument for considering a more qualified, higher-level adviser, even if a case could theoretically be handled by a lower-level adviser, Chowdhury said. “When choosing between immigration advisers, a Level 3 OISC adviser is likely to provide a more extensive service due to years of experience in the industry, in comparison to a Level 1 OISC adviser, who may perhaps be newly qualified,” she said.
The bottom line, however, is that when it comes to filing visa applications, the buck stops with the individual applicant. “The onus is upon individual customers to ensure that they satisfy the requirements set out in the guidance material,” said Guo Ling with UK’s Department of Visas and Immigration.
That means it's important for immigration investors to do due diligence and to ensure their advisers are properly trained and qualified. Officials advise checking the OICS registry to ensure advisers’ credentials are up to date, and that they’re permitted to provide the specific services that their client requires.