The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal imposed its ultimate sanction on Zulfiqar Ali, who practised as ZA Solicitors in Stratford.
Ali was one of several immigration lawyers recorded advising an undercover journalist that they could get him a visa if he could pull off a sham marriage. ITV broadcast the footage in July 2015.
At the tribunal, Ali argued that a Home Office investigation had cleared him, and that the covert recording was subject to legal professional privilege (because it involved advice to a client).
The tribunal dismissed these preliminary arguments and found that the charge of dishonesty was proven. It found Ali’s evidence “unconvincing” and had “no doubt” that the recorded discussion was about a sham marriage, citing in full the following exchange:
Client A: “Ok. What if I pay someone to marry me?”
Respondent: “It totally depends on you”
Client A: “Would you be able to help me with that? I mean do the paperwork and everything?”
Respondent: “Yes we will be able to do the paperwork, visa, certificate but end of the day (sic) … it’s a very costly business.”
Ali was also recorded as saying “it is only when they [the Home Office[ suspect something but if you have confidence, you are together, you hold each other then that’s not a problem” and “it’s up to people to do it, genuine or not”.
The tribunal said “it was clear throughout the interview that Client A intended to enter into a sham marriage”, concluding that
no solicitor acting with integrity would advise a client on his options for entering into a sham marriage. Still less would a solicitor of integrity agree to do all the paperwork in support of such a marriage. The Respondent’s conduct in this regard had fallen well below the standards expected of him both by the public and members of the profession.
In mitigation, Ali argued that the affair was “not a serious matter such that it should attract a serious punishment” and pitched for a maximum fine of £500, this being ten times the amount he received for the legal advice tendered. Instead he was struck off the roll of solicitors and ordered to pay costs of £19,000.
As the tribunal says, the prospect of solicitors using their expertise to advise clients on how to circumvent the immigration system is a matter of great concern. As well as placing clients at risk when found out, such disgraceful practices give the rest of the profession a bad name.
For all that it makes good television, though, it is not clear that sham marriages actually represent a big problem for the UK immigration system. Ministers used to bandy around figures in the thousands, but those turned out to be statistical sleight of hand. The immigration inspector records that just 93 unions were assessed as bogus between January and August 2016, out of 225 investigated.