Barriers to Complaints

February 11, 2022
James Conyers
Posted by
James Conyers

What’s holding caseworkers and consumers back from complaining about bad immigration advice? Our two new reports explore the key barriers.

Immigration advice is hard. Really hard. It is complex. The system is draconian. Mistakes can have drastic consequences. You might work with people at their lowest ebb and for little money. Research by Dr Jo Wilding shows that demand far outstrips supply. So why encourage people to complain about immigration advice?

Most immigration advisers do their best under difficult circumstances. Most, but not all.

Migrants can be among the most vulnerable people. They may experience language barriers, culture shock, digital exclusion, financial insecurity, homelessness and trauma, sometimes all at once. Their immigration status can be a precious thing, hard won and easily lost. The right to exist, albeit time limited and subject to conditions.

Where a vulnerable group needs a precious thing, there is opportunity for exploitation.  When demand is high and supply is short, even the best advisers can make mistakes or offer little guidance. But some either don’t realise or don’t care. People are exploited and mistakes are made but complaints are rare. 

Read our two new reports which explore the key barriers.

The journey to launching this research

We started the Frontline Immigration Advice Project to try and get more free, high-quality immigration advice to the people who need it. But sometimes advisers are up against past mistakes, trying to recover lost opportunities and unpick damage already done.  You wish people would come to you sooner. But the less good advisers often get to them first.

The main tool for tackling poor advice is to make a complaint. But regulators say they receive few complaints about immigration advice. We wanted to find out why.

We began this work in 2019. We held round-table discussions with frontline caseworkers, asking them why they didn’t make more complaints on behalf of service users (consumers) who had received bad immigration advice. We learned that consumers were unwilling to sanction a complaint. Other barriers also emerged, including time pressures, lack of priority, complexity and lack of knowledge, but consumer reluctance was the most prominent.

Understanding why consumers don’t want to complain is the key. Caseworkers had lots of ideas, but only the voice of consumers could help us determine what the barriers were, and which barriers were most significant. 

Throughout this process, we have always brought the regulators into our thinking and collaborating; following our principle of collaborative working to ensure a stronger result.

In 2021, researchers Anne Rathbone, Patrick Nyikavaranda and Mark Foster interviewed 23 mainly asylum-seeking consumers and conducted a focus group. Finding consumers willing to be interviewed was itself a challenge. Service user groups and people with lived experience proved essential for encouraging participation – an important learning point!

We’re grateful for the support of the Bar Standards Board who funded the research.

What’s holding people back from complaining about bad advice?

We found that lack of knowledge and understanding was a key barrier – people didn’t know they could complain, and when they did, they couldn’t tell whether what had happened was the fault of their previous adviser. Fear was another major barrier – a belief that complaining would harm their application or their immigration status. Other barriers emerged such as the problems they were having to deal with daily. Interpreters were said to have actively discouraged complaints. Some people felt that they had been exploited by members of their community, increasing their distrust.

Participants spoke of the harm they had suffered. Not just loss of status, but often years of limbo and destitution, leading to physical and mental health problems.

What did we find and where do we go next?

We concluded that the existing process for disseminating information and eliciting and handling complaints about immigration advice is not fit for use by asylum seekers. This likely holds true for other vulnerable migrant groups.   

The next step will be to work with consumers, regulators and other stakeholders to develop new ways of getting information to consumers, and new processes and methods for raising concerns about problem advisers.  

As with all our work at GPP, we believe this work should be led by consumers, and tested regularly as it is developed - through this collaborative working we can ensure that the results are accessible, usable and will lead to meaningful change.

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To request the raw data, please email Helen Barley.

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