08:58, March 01 466 0 theguardian.com

2017-03-01 08:58:04
Inquiry launched into 'stalling' by Rochdale grooming gang lawyers

The solicitors’ watchdog is investigating alleged stalling tactics employed by lawyers at tribunals after criticisms from Britain’s most senior immigration judge.

Inquiries by the Solicitors Regulatory Authority (SRA) began last month after Mr Justice Bernard McCloskey accused lawyers acting for the Rochdale grooming gang of obstructing an immigration tribunal with “sustained and marked disrespect”.

Last month, McCloskey accused solicitors acting for convicted child rapists who face deportation to Pakistan of “weakening the rule of law” through stalling tactics.

The four men from Rochdale appealed against a decision by then home secretary, Theresa May, to strip them of British citizenship as the first step to deporting them.

Paul Philip, the chief executive of the Solicitors Regulation Authority, hopes to meet McCloskey about his concerns, and points out in a letter to an MP that his body has the power to close firms down or strike individuals off the roll.

The four men, led by ringleader Shabir Ahmed, 63, were convicted in 2012 of grooming girls as young as 13 in Rochdale, plying them with drink and drugs before they were “passed around” for sex.

Ahmed, who first came to the UK in 1967 aged 14 and was described by the judge at his trial as a “violent hypocritical bully”, was given a 19-year sentence at Liverpool crown court in May 2012 for a string of child sex offences, including rape.

He was also jailed for 22 years, to run concurrently, in July 2012 for raping another child 30 times over a decade.

Three other men convicted of child sex offences in the same case, Abdul Aziz, Adil Khan and Qari Abdul Rauf, also appealed against being stripped of citizenship.

Their solicitors, Nottingham-based firm Burton & Burton, were funded through the legal aid fund.

McCloskey, president of of the immigration and asylum chamber, surprised many in the legal profession by making highly critical comments of lawyers involved in the case.

“The upper tribunal has been treated with sustained and marked disrespect. The conduct of these appeals has been cavalier and unprofessional. The rule of law has been weakened in consequence,” he said.

In a damning ruling McCloskey said the men’s solicitors had failed to submit the necessary papers to the court and had repeatedly asked for adjournments.

The judge added: “Scarce judicial and administrative resources have been wasted in dealing with repeated unmeritorious requests by the appellants’ solicitors for an adjournment.”

He also criticised government lawyers representing the home secretary, saying that they had only produced a skeleton argument at the “eleventh hour” and only after repeated requests from tribunal staff.

“It was produced in egregious breach of the tribunal’s directions ... A feeble and unacceptable excuse for this particular default has been proffered,” said McCloskey.

The judge said there had been “multiple recent examples of similar conduct and misconduct”. He urged government legal officials to mount an investigation into such cases.

All four men had their cases dismissed on all grounds by immigration judges.

The SRA inquiry has emerged in a letter obtained by the Rochdale MP Simon Danczuk, who wrote to the SRA asking whether there was a “systemic” problem whichwas delaying justice for the victims of paedophiles.

Philip replied: “The comments made by Mr Justice McCloskey are of real concern and we have started investigating this. In addition we have asked him to meet with us in view of his wider comments of having seen multiple recent examples of similar conduct.

“We want to understand if there are other firms or solicitors that we regulate that have been a cause for concern.”

Commenting on the SRA inquiry, Danczuk said: “There is no doubt that some solicitors have been dragging out the tribunal process.

“We need to think about the rights of the child victims who cannot get over these horrific crimes while the legal process is being dragged out by abusers and their representatives.”

Mohammed Mahruf, a partner at Burton & Burton, said the firm had not been made aware of any inquiry by the SRA. He said the firm would hope to respond to criticisms in the future but would not do so now to avoid prejudicing any ongoing action.