“I’ve never come across an area where criminal activity is so rife.”
Those were the words of John Tuckett, the Immigration Services Commissioner, in August of this year when describing the world of immigration legal advice. In truth, he was commenting on an epidemic of unregulated bogus providers of immigration legal services scamming people out of large amounts of money by falsely guaranteeing success in visa or asylum applications at a low price. Tuckett’s department, the Office of the Immigration Services Commissioner (OISC), received 131 complaints about unregulated advice in 2020-2021, but some say this figure is just the tip of the iceberg as many of the victims do not speak English and many are not in the UK, unfortunately in a number of cases as a direct result of the poor advice they have received.
With the above in mind, let me explain why paying for accredited immigration advisers is a much more sensible choice for people to make.
You Know What You’re Getting
In order to give immigration advice in the UK, you need authorisation from the appropriate regulator. While many appropriately-regulated practising barristers and firms of solicitors will provide immigration advice, many people will instead go to specialist immigration advice firms that are overseen by the OISC, the standalone regulator for immigration advice services.
In order to qualify as an immigration adviser, OISC accreditation is necessary. The OISC will assess the competence of candidates through a series of rigorous exams to test their knowledge of immigration law and to assess whether the candidate is a fit, proper and competent person who is capable of managing client files and more. There are three levels of accreditation and each one comes with its own exams and assessments. Fewer than half of those who sit the Level 1 exam passed, showing the assessments are not merely a rubber stamp and have a high standard for competence.
This information should be kept in mind when it comes to seeking immigration advice: if you choose an OISC-accredited immigration adviser, you know you are getting someone who has satisfied those high OISC standards.
If you are getting immigration advice from an unregulated adviser, you just have to trust they know immigration law. If you Google immigration advice, you again have to assume that the information is correct and up to date and that you have actually understood the information, as so many of the UK’s immigration rules and regulations are written in legal jargon that is close to incomprehensible.
When it comes to OISC-accredited immigration advisers, however, no assumptions are needed. If they are regulated by the OISC, that means they have gone through the aforementioned assessment process and therefore you know they have expert knowledge of UK immigration law.
If you want to understand in detail what your immigration adviser knows, check their OISC accreditation level. If they have Level 1 accreditation, they can undertake work on all of the most straightforward (relatively speaking) immigration matters, such as work visas, spouse visas, visitor visas, etc. Advisers with Level 2 accreditation can work on more complicated matters, such as asylum cases and discretionary leave. Those who have achieved Level 3 accreditation can undertake work on appeals and can represent clients at hearings.
With an OISC-accredited adviser, you can be sure that you are getting the expertise to navigate the UK’s complicated immigration system successfully.
The Stakes Are Too High
If you were going to have surgery, you would want a top surgeon to be operating on you. You would certainly, as a bare minimum, want a surgeon who had graduated from medical school. Similarly, you would want your house built by builders who know building regulations. And if you were accused of a crime, you would want to be represented by a good lawyer.
The same should be the case with a visa application. In many of the recently reported cases of unregulated immigration advisers being prosecuted and convicted, the lives of their victims have been ruined. Many spent thousands of pounds only to end up being denied a visa or even deported from the UK. Some even received bans from applying for future UK visas that last many years, as their unregulated advisers had submitted fraudulent documentation on their behalf. These include people hoping to come to the UK to earn more money and better support their families, people wishing to join their families and loved ones, students hoping to get the education they need to achieve their dreams, people trying to regularise their status in the country they see as their home, asylum seekers fleeing war or persecution, and many others. These are life-changing events for the people involved and no one should risk having their lives turned upside down by being refused a visa, deported and/or banned from the UK, or have that happen to a loved one, just because they relied on the advice of someone not qualified to give it.
You Get What You Pay For
The most often cited reason for people going to unregulated immigration advisers is money. Often unregulated advisers will offer rates well below the market rate offered by accredited firms. It is therefore very tempting to take them up on their offer, especially for people who do not have much money. This is a very understandable problem and it is easy to sympathise with people struggling with money. It needs to be said, however, that this is a false economy and that we should remember the old maxim: “If it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is”.
OISC guidelines state that immigration advice firms need to outline their fees from the beginning and need to make potential clients aware of all the costs involved. Unregulated advisers, meanwhile, often draw potential clients in with initially low rates but then demand more further down the line and even if they do not try and extort their clients, you are still paying money for advice that may well be worthless and if that is the case, this is likely to cost you more in the long term, either in the cost of preparing a new application, the cost of rectifying things, the loss of earning potential it can cause or even just the emotional cost it has on your mental health. No matter how cheap it may seem, paying for worthless advice will always be a waste of money
Get Good Advice, Not Comforting Lies
Another common theme in stories of people being scammed by unregulated immigration advisers was of people being told they had a good chance of success when in truth their applications were always likely to fail. Once again, it is understandable that people may fall for the smooth words of someone telling them what they want to hear. We must never forget, however, that choosing to believe a comforting lie over a hard truth is never a sensible idea.
A good adviser in any field of law will always be as objective as possible with their legal counsel and always make their clients fully aware of their chances of success or failure. If you have no chance of getting the visa you want, an accredited immigration adviser will tell you this in no uncertain terms. This is preferable to the false hope and wasted time that comes with false promises of success when there is no chance of it. Conversely, when an accredited adviser says you have a realistic prospect of success, then you can believe it and not have to suffer the disappointment of an unexpected refusal.
Transparency and Accountability
The advantage of having its own standalone regulator is that it is clear who is in charge and who is responsible for setting and enforcing standards. The OISC’s remit includes enforcement of good practices by auditing immigration advice firms, inspecting their premises and dealing with complaints. They have the power to prevent a person from ever giving immigration advice by striking them from their register of accredited advisers.
Organisations regulated by the OISC are required, among many other things, to keep their clients updated on their cases, report conflicts of interest, have a clear procedure for the handling of complaints, and report any misconduct by its employees or associates to the appropriate authorities. This ensures that immigration advisers operate with complete transparency and within a clear chain of accountability.
Unregulated firms, by definition, have no one to monitor them and while the OISC also has the power to prosecute unregulated advisers when they find them, this may be too little, too late for those people whose lives have been turned upside down by their bad advice. When instructing an accredited immigration advice firm, you can rest assured that they will operate with full transparency and even if something goes wrong or they violate their duty to you, there is a clear path to hold them accountable that does not involve going through the civil and/or criminal courts.