New licensing rule could leave refugees scrambling for new consultants

Source: 
Toronto Star

By Nicholas Keung The Star Mon., June 6, 2022

It’s not easy for Nesa to confide in someone about why she fled Iran to Canada, let alone having to spill out personal details as intimate as her sexual orientation.

It took incessant email exchanges and hours of virtual meetings and calls since January before the 26-year-old asylum seeker felt comfortable enough to tell immigration consultant Kerry Molitor her full story. “It’s extremely important for me to trust someone to share all the personal information and details of my life,” says Nesa, a convert from Islam to Christianity, who asked her last name be withheld.

Then in mid-May, Nesa says she was shocked to learn she will need a new counsel, because Molitor won’t be able to represent her at the Immigration and Refugee Board.

“I have already had enough stress in my life and now I have to worry about looking for another person that I can trust,” lamented Nesa, who studied architecture in university before fleeing Tehran, where she could face the death penalty for being gay.

Starting on July 1, consultants like Molitor can only represent clients before the IRB if they have passed the new specialization exam of the College of Immigration and Citizenship Consultants, which became the profession’s official regulator in August.

Consultants who haven’t yet sat for the exam will be prohibited from taking on new clients with matters before the IRB — and must also stop representing current clients, leaving some scramble to find new counsel or risk lacking representation.

It’s not known how many consultants will need to temporarily suspend their practice. Since the college started offering the 4 1/2-month-long specialization course last August, there has been one qualifying exam held; one other is scheduled, this Thursday, before the July 1 deadline.

The regulator was unable to provide the Star data on the number of candidates who passed the first exam or how many have registered for the upcoming one. Two more exams are scheduled for September and December.

Of the 38 specialization courses scheduled — each with 35 spots available — since August, 17 of the cohorts will have completed the classes on or before July 1. (Consultants also have the option to go for an assessment of their prior knowledge and experiences to waive the exam; the regulator couldn’t say how many have done so.)

An online petition that recommends postponing the July 1 deadline for at least six months has been signed by about 170 consultants.

A survey by the regulator last year had identified at least 900 licensed consultants who had either appeared or intended to represent clients at the four tribunals at the board.

“We gave everyone who got in the door properly a time to complete the program and time to take two cracks at the at the exam,” John Murray, the college’s president and CEO, told the Star.

The college said its predecessor started “communications” about the specialization program as early as December 2020 and the information was posted when the new regulator launched its website in November. Some consultants simply didn’t see the “urgency,” it said.

In a letter to the regulator in May, the Canadian Association of Professional Immigration Consultants said practitioners recognize the importance of a rigorous regulatory regime and many have taken the course “in good faith.”

“Yet there is little opportunity to take exams within the appropriate time, especially given that exam release dates” — the delays between taking the exam and getting the results — “are lengthy,” wrote the 2,000-member association, which asked the regulator to schedule more exam slots.

“Changing retainers and passing clients to other consultants can be a lengthy process and often traumatizing for those who are vulnerable and who rely on the RCIC (regulated Canadian immigration consultant) counsel that they have carefully selected.”

Candy Hui, a Regina-based immigration consultant, said she tried to enrol in the specialization course as early as August but was only slotted for a cohort in late January. She got lucky; by completing the course in late May, she’ll be able to sit for the exam this month.

Although consultants were aware of the July 1 deadline, she said she only learned about the exam dates in late April.

“It wasn’t that I wasn’t ready to do the exam but I would have expected that there were more exam days,” said Hui. “I was actually surprised that they put it out so late.”

Since Hui works at a law firm, the new requirement will have minimal impact on her, but she said many consultants are lone practitioners and she’s concerned for their clients.

“It’s traumatizing every time you have to revisit how you were abused and how your life is at risk,” she said. “These people are the most vulnerable people in the immigration system.”

Molitor, Nesa’s consultant, has been licensed since 2011. She said she had picked the course cohort that started in January but ended up being placed in the course that began on Feb. 28 and ends this month.

“We didn’t understand the implications of this because we thought the exam was at the end of the course,” she said. But when Molitor realizedthat the first exam she could sit for wasn’t until September, she reached out to the clients who have matters before the IRB about transferring their cases to others.

Even though she can provide partial refund for not appearing at hearings, the clients will have to pay new counsel just to review files.

“I feel like I’m being forced to reject them. That’s emotionally painful,” she said, while conceding that the course is “a very important step. It’s good training.”

On Friday, the college said it is working with the IRB to flag all upcoming hearings to be represented by consultants in the coming months to evaluate the impacts of the new regulation and explore ways to “mitigate” the concerns. It also plans to schedule four more exams to ensure there’s one available each month through the rest of the year.