Victorian Marleen Charan, 48, who scammed nearly $80,000 from four clients while posing as an immigration lawyer, has avoided jail.
Between February 2016 and May 2017, the single mother arranged meetings with her victims at an office where she ran her business, Australian Immigration Legal Support Centre. Charan advertised her business online on Gumtree and displayed fake legal practising certificates at her office.
One of her victims lost $10,500 after Charan posed as a lawyer and claimed she would provide them with an immigration law program to complete and would sponsor a visa application. Another lost $28,408 when Charan said she could lodge an application for her to become an Australian permanent resident.
Her next victim was swindled out of $20,108 after he paid Charan to help him lodge a temporary work visa for his brother. Charan also claimed she could give the brother a job at a restaurant she was opening.
Charan said she’d support another client with visa sponsorship; they lost $20,800.
In 2019, Charan was arrested and charged at Melbourne airport as she prepared to board a plane to India.
During her first interview with the police, Charan said she had been “very clear” about what she could and couldn’t do, saying she could “provide consultancy but not advice or a visa”. She said, “Part of my nature is to help people and reach out, and I still want to do that.”
In court, Charan pleaded guilty to obtaining financial advantage by deception. Her defense barrister, Luke Howson, told the court Charan “was under tremendous expectation from her family.”
Supporting Charan in court was Edward McHugh, whom she helped get released from detention after it was found to be unlawful by a Federal Court.
On the day of Charan’s sentencing, six years after she began committing fraud, Judge Duncan Allen acknowledged the immense assistance she had provided to Mr McHugh. He said, “I acknowledge his presence here today. It is of great value in evidencing the great work you have done, ironically, since this offending behaviour.” Allen also noted the extreme hardship she had experienced in her life and that she had no prior or subsequent offences. But he also said, “It seems in the past she’s had trouble living in reality … She deceived herself as well as others. There is no independent evidence of remorse at this time. She needs to accept reality.”
Charan was ordered by Allen to complete 250 hours of community work, receive mental health treatment and support, and be supervised for three years. He also ordered that she pay the customers back the money if she earns enough in the future to offset their losses.
Since committing the crimes, Charan has completed a law degree at Victoria University, but because of her convictions, it’s unlikely she’ll be granted a certificate to practice.
So what does a lawyer need to practice legally?
Requirements for Practice as an Immigration Solicitor
Aspiring lawyers must complete a recognised law degree, such as a 4-year Bachelor of Law. The second step is undertaking a supervised traineeship or completing a Graduate Diploma in Legal Practice, an additional qualification focusing on practical legal skills. Both the above qualifications or their equivalents are required for admission as a solicitor.
In Queensland, the penultimate step is to obtain the endorsement of the Legal Practitioners Admission Board (LPAB), attend an admission ceremony in the State’s or Territory’s Supreme court, and request a practising certificate from the relevant law society or institute. Each State and Territory has their own representative body which governs and issues practising certificates. A solicitor can undertake legal work only with a current practising certificate subject to annual renewal and the completion of continuing professional development activities.
Most solicitors will have satisfied the regulatory and licencing requirements required for practice at this stage. In migration, there is one minor additional step. Before providing immigration assistance to potential clients, the solicitor needs a Legal Practitioner Number (LPN) from the Department of Home Affairs. This identification number is crucial and must be included in visa applications lodged by a practitioner, in their capacity as a solicitor, on behalf of someone else.
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