Saturday, 13 August 2011
A government-backed charity that was Britain’s largest adviser to immigrants and asylum seekers collapsed after misspending an estimated £4.4 million in legal aid in a single year.

The Immigration Advisory Service (IAS), which received £15 million of taxpayers’ money last year, has been accused of wrongly claiming legal aid for a third of its cases.

The charity had 300 staff working in 14 centres across the country and was helping 20,000 immigrants when it suddenly closed last month. A report by its administrators reveals that 31 per cent of its legal aid cases in the year to last September have been ruled invalid by the Legal Services Commission.

Thousands of people were allegedly given money for their legal cases despite failing to prove that they were unable to pay their bills, or were helped to bring ineligible repeated appeals or were involved in cases not covered by legal aid.

A Whitehall source said: “We are not suggesting there was a mass fraud but it is not something that could be swept under the carpet. Something appears to have gone seriously wrong and the Legal Services Commission had a duty to taxpayers to recover the money.”
Critics have claimed that some immigration lawyers routinely bring repeated appeals in hopeless cases so that their clients can eventually argue that they have been in the country so long that it would be a breach of their human rights to deport them.

The IAS had been a leading campaigner for a relaxation of immigration laws since 1993 and was involved in many big cases. Only weeks before going into administration it obtained an emergency injunction preventing the deportation of 50 asylum seekers about to board a flight to Iraq.

Cork Gully, the insolvency practitioners appointed to wind up the charity, have reported that the legal aid overpayments were discovered in a routine audit by the commission.
Cork Gully said that “the audit indicated that 31 per cent of the claims should not have been made” and that the commission has a “contingent claim for an estimated £4.4 million with respect to overpayment in the year to September 2010”.

Although the charity was due to receive £3.5 million in legal aid payments for completed work, it already owed £2.3 million to the commission before the warning that there would be a “significant clawback” of the overpayments found in the audit.

Cork Gully said that the complexity of the legal aid rules, particularly for immigration and asylum cases, was widely recognised within the industry.

The charity said: “IAS tried to reach an agreement with Legal Services Commission for an extended period to repay monies which, in common with many other firms, had been claimed in error, partly, in IAS’s view, due to the complex funding rules in place.”

Immigration and human rights lawyers have complained that the charity was a victim of government cuts to the legal aid budget and the introduction complicated criteria.

In a letter to The Times, 428 barristers, including 59 QCs, said that lives would be put at risk by government plans to reduce legal aid for asylum seekers in an attempt to cut £350 million from the £2.1 billion budget.

Refugee and Migrant Justice, a legal charity that had 10,000 clients, collapsed last year, blaming changes to the legal aid system. The commission has said that the charity owes it £1.8 million for misspent legal aid.

The commission told The Times: “When we find that a legal aid provider has been claiming incorrectly or inappropriately, we can and do take action to recover taxpayers’ money.”
Source: The Times (£)


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