Volunteers or people charging fees for advising or assisting migrants or refugees must register with the Office of the Migration Agents Registration Authority (OMARA) and obey a code of conduct. Criminal penalties apply for unregistered practice. Public servants and lawyers undertaking legal rather than migration-assisting activities are excepted. The Law Institute of Victoria accredits immigration law specialists.
From 21 September 1992, anyone who uses knowledge of migration procedures to advise, make representations on behalf of, or complete application forms for applicants for entry permits, visas or refugee status must register. This includes voluntary workers and those who provide migration advice free of charge, although these people will normally be exempt from paying the registration fee (currently $1,760 per year for commercial agents).
Migration agents must obey a Code of Conduct, which outlines the ethical standards and competencies expected of migration agents, as well as the penalties for non-compliance. The code must be prominently displayed in the agent’s office. Agents who disobey the code can be suspended or deregistered by the Office of the Migration Agents Registration Authority (OMARA).
On 9 February 2009 the OMARA took over from the previous Migration Institute of Australia (MIA) and the (privatised) Migration Agents Registration Authority, which in turn had previously taken over from a federal government-appointed Migration Agents Registration Board. In other words, the wheel has turned full circle and the new discipline body for agents (the OMARA) is now, once again, a federal government body (see www.mara.gov.au).
The Office of the MARA is led by a Chief Executive Officer who reports directly to the secretary of Home Affairs. It is supported by an Advisory Board that includes a diverse range of interests, including a nominee from the MIA, a nominee of the Law Council of Australia (LCA), a community representative and a consumer advocate.
Criminal penalties of up to 10 years imprisonment and fines of up to $60,000 apply to individuals who practise as agents without being registered.
The only people who do not need to register are offshore agents, parliamentarians and their staff, and public servants who give migration advice as part of their duties. Other exemptions apply to staff of foreign missions and international organisations in Australia who are covered by the Privileges and Immunities legislation.
Australian lawyers who provide direct or indirect assistance in the completion or lodgment of a visa application, or make direct or indirect representations for an application, or in the preparation of any proceedings before the AAT, must register. However, lawyers do not need to register when acting in the course of their profession in preparing cases for, or in proceedings before, a court. (Note that the AAT is not a “court” for this purpose; see “Other merits review bodies”). Note that Australian lawyers have recently persuaded the government that they should not be subject to “dual regulation” and the government has agreed to remove them from any requirement to register with OMARA. However, the legislation has not yet been presented to parliament.
The Specialisation Board of the Law Institute of Victoria (LIV) has accredited specialists in immigration law. These solicitors (as well as being registered migration agents) must have at least five years experience practising law (with three years substantial experience in immigration matters) and must pass LIV’s Specialisation Board examination that tests their knowledge of immigration law. Their names and addresses can be obtained from LIV (see “Contacts”).