Three law firms in England accused of wrongdoing in dealing with asylum applications have been shut down by the solicitors’ watchdog.
The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has also suspended the practising certificates of three solicitors – one from each of the firms that have been shut down.
The practices were named in a Daily Mail investigation, which alleged that several individuals working with solicitors firms had been charging thousands of pounds to submit false asylum and human rights claims.
An undercover reporter for the newspaper said they had been offered help in obtaining refugee status in the UK, despite having made it clear to several advisers they had no legitimate right to stay.
The justice secretary, Alex Chalk, has since written to the SRA demanding that it came down hard on any proven cases of wrongdoing.
On Monday, replying to Chalk, Anna Bradley, chair of the SRA board, said that she was “shocked” by the apparent behaviour of the solicitors under scrutiny.
She wrote: “We obtained from the Daily Mail recordings and transcripts of conversations with four of the solicitors in question and have reviewed that material.
“We have commenced an urgent on-site inspection of two of the firms involved to gather further evidence. Based on the evidence available, we have taken the following urgent action: intervening into three of the firms, this has the effect of suspending from practice the individual solicitors involved and closing the firms.”
The solicitors and firms in question are Rashid Khan, from Rashid & Rashid, which is based in Wimbledon, south London, Muhammad Ahmad, from Kingswright solicitors in Birmingham and Muhammad Hayat at Lincoln Lawrence solicitors in Hounslow, west London.
Additionally, an order was issued against VP Lingajothy, formerly of Duncan Ellis Solicitors, south London, which means that he cannot work in another solicitor firm without the SRA’s permission.
The watchdog’s intervention means that not only have the firms been stopped from operating but the SRA has taken possession of all their documents and papers and all money held by the firm (including clients’ money). It said another firm of solicitors has been appointed to act as its agent to deal with all matters currently held by the firms in question.
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The interventions can be challenged at the high court but if they are not successful or there is no challenge the firms will remain closed.
The SRA said: “We will now investigate further the issues raised that have led to this intervention to see if any additional action is necessary. At this stage of our work, no further details can be disclosed.”
Having carried out a thematic review into immigration work and published guidance last year, Bradley wrote to Chalk that the SRA would be “commencing a wider inspection of the immigration sector, looking at compliance with our new guidance … and [this] will include a cross-section of firms working in the asylum sector”.
She said it would be expanding and promoting information on rules and best practice, including new guidance to reflect the latest investigation, and would also publish new information for asylum seekers and interpreters.