Thank you, sir.
First of all, I'd like to say that it's an absolute honour and privilege to appear and participate in your study of the legal, regulatory, and disciplinary frameworks governing and overseeing immigration consultants in Canada.
By way of background, I am an immigration lawyer in Calgary. Before I went into private practice, I was a refugee protection officer with the refugee protection division at the Immigration and Refugee Board. That is Canada's largest administrative tribunal. As a former immigration hearings officer, now as an immigration lawyer, I've done hundreds of hearings, probably fewer than Mr. Waldman but still quite a few. My partner and I and our associates appear regularly before the Federal Court of Canada, which requires a review of the record below.
Over the years I've also had the opportunity to host a Punjabi language radio show in Calgary, and for obvious reasons, immigration is a matter that is very near and dear to my community. I've seen lawyers and immigration consultants at all three divisions of the IRB. I've seen their work, transcripts of their hearings, and their applications. I've seen first-hand the consequences of bad advice.
There are good lawyers and bad. There are bad consultants and good ones. In my opinion, very few consultants are competent enough to represent and advocate for clients at the IRB. I've had the opportunity to review the briefs of the Canadian Bar Association and the Metro Toronto Chinese and Southeast Asian Legal Clinic. I share many of those concerns.
I disagree, however, with the CBA call to restrict representation for fees only to lawyers who are members of good standing of a provincial law society. There are two important concepts at play: access to justice and protection of the public.
I've had the opportunity to work with immigration consultants who have prior experience in immigration, including former immigration officers or CBSA officers, former lawyers, and others who know their limits. They do provide a valuable service. I don't think that lawyers automatically have a monopoly over all aspects of immigration law. The fact of the matter, however, is that ICCRC seems to favour promoting the easy entrance of consultants to the practice of immigration law over the protection of the public.
Right now, after getting admission to and passing a 320-hour online course—and this is what Ashton College's website says—the program gives students the opportunity to become part of this exciting field, without forcing them to be on campus. There are no courses on legal research, evidence, or administrative law principles. Once you complete this completely online course, you need to pass the ICCRC exams. By the way, even if you fail the skill exam, you still get three more kicks at the can. Anyone over 18 with a language proficiency test who passes this skills exam, on day one, can represent a refugee before the RPD.
To represent a refugee means knowing the substantive law in this area, terms like “state protection”, “internal flight alternative”, or exclusion clauses such as crimes against humanity, war crimes, or serious international non-political crimes. That same person can also, on day one, appear before the immigration division to represent a permanent resident being charged with a serious crime outside Canada. That requires an equivalency of a foreign charge with a Canadian criminal law. A loss at that division could result in the loss of status and removal without further appeal. That same person can represent a permanent resident at the immigration appeal division with a criminal conviction in Canada, or a permanent resident facing an allegation of misrepresentation, or a Canadian sponsor appealing against refusal by a visa officer to a family member overseas. There is no way that a six-month online course can give you grounding in the substantive law needed to be an effective advocate.
Look, we don't allow 16-year-olds to drive 18-wheelers. There needs to be a graduated licensing for consultants. Just because you can fill out a work permit doesn't mean you can appear, represent, and advocate for a refugee, a permanent resident facing criminal charges abroad, a permanent resident with a conviction inside Canada, or a Canadian looking to appeal against a refused visa to a family member.
We're relying on immigration consultants, individuals, to self-police, to restrict themselves when it is in their financial pecuniary interests to take on work, even work that they are not competent to do. They've paid thousands of dollars for the education, the skills exam, registration, insurance, marketing and advertising, and more. Obviously, they'll want a return on that investment.
My recommendation is to split the baby. In the United Kingdom, the legal profession is split between solicitors and barristers. Solicitors do transactional types of legal work. This is probably what 320 hours of an online course will allow for—a consultant to provide advice on and assist in completing immigration applications. Barristers represent clients as an advocate before a court or a tribunal. This requires training in evidence, ethics, court practice and procedure, and legal research. There's no way that 320 hours of an online course, and maybe a mock interview module, will allow for a consultant to practise competently before the IRB.
There should be a different process to license certain immigration practitioners or advocates to appear before the IRB. These individuals should either possess direct prior substantial experience, and/or prospective immigration advocates should be required to complete substantial legal courses, and undergo articles or train under the supervision of a lawyer, or a consultant who has the requisite experience.
Frankly, I think regulation has failed because the ICCRC sets up consultants to fail. They are knowingly or ignorantly—take your pick—arming their members with a knife and allowing them to go into a gunfight. Ultimately, it is the refugee claimant, the spouse separated from her partner for years, the permanent resident facing removal and loss of status from a country that he has called home for decades, who will pay the price.
Thank you for your time. I look forward to answering any questions you may have.