POLITICS

Immigration Lawyers Blindsided By 'Unprecedented' 457 Changes

The 'overnight' shift has stressed out lawyers and clients.

20/04/2017 10:44 AM AEST | Updated 20/04/2017 11:34 AM AEST

A Sydney immigration lawyer said the government's sudden and unexpected overhaul of the 457 system on Tuesday has sent the legal industry scrambling, with some changes announced less than 12 hours before they were to take effect.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced 457 working visas would be abolished and replaced with a new two-tiered system, with a skills list reduced by more than 200 jobs and most of those remaining only eligible for two-year visas rather than the previous four, and a vast scaling back in those allowed to apply for permanent residency after their visa expires.

The PM said 95,000 people were currently in Australia on 457s, and tens of thousands more apply for the popular working visas each year, so the announcement sent shockwaves through affected worker groups -- some told The Huffington Post Australia they were fearful the sudden announcement would derail lifelong plans to settle in Australia.

Marina Brizar, head of corporate and private client at immigration law firm Playfair Visa and Migration Services, said her team was caught off-guard by the sudden change. She told HuffPost Australia her firm had to work quickly to modify visa applications they had recently lodged for clients, with some changes to the working visa program taking effect less than 12 hours after the announcement. The plan for "significantly condensing the occupation lists used for skilled migration visas", announced on Tuesday afternoon, came into effect on Wednesday.

"My understanding is that this is quite unprecedented, the changes came without any notice. We got notification of the changes at 1pm for conditions to change at midnight," she said.

"Even if you lodged [an application] a month or two ago, those are invalidated if they've been removed from the skills list. It's happened quite suddenly. As lawyers, we get comfort knowing what you can and can't do, but this is very uncharted territory."

"The way it was done is quite controversial and difficult to manage."

Brizar said the retrospective nature of the changes was a big concern.

"Some clients will have to withdraw applications because they're not on the new list. We'll have to look at keeping people lawful. Having things happen overnight is hard. Companies are relying on workers to be here, they've committed to sponsoring them, they've paid the lawyer and department fees," she said.

"There is some discussion about refunds for some lodging charges, but having to withdraw an application and look at other options is creating stress for clients."

"I've been trying to put out as much information as possible, having conversations with clients and answering as best as we can, but the difficulty is not having a concrete answer."

In a statement, the Department of Immigration and Border Protection said people currently on 457 visas would not have their conditions changed, and that since most of the working visa changes do not come into force until April 18, 2017, that 457 holders had some time to get their affairs in order and apply for residency if they wished.

"Existing 457 visas will continue to remain in effect until they expire. As is currently the case, a 457 visa holder who wishes to remain in Australia beyond the validity of their current visa, must apply for a new visa before their current visa expires," a department spokesperson said in an email.

"Existing 457 visa holders and applicants as at 18 April 2017 will continue to have access to existing employer sponsored pathways to permanent residence. Further details will be published on the Department's website in due course."

The department advised concerned 457 holders to see further information on the department's website.

Brizar said the changes to the list of occupations eligible for working visas reflected a changing marketplace, and that the majority of the changes -- besides the slimmed-down skills list and the changes to residency -- were relatively minor.

"A lot of things are going to remain identical, not a lot of big changes except in English requirements and some other requirements, they are a little more onerous but the big thing is having your occupation on the new skills list," she said.

"The marketplace is changing, the law has to change with it. If deployed correctly, the skills list is going to be reflective of the market place. It will be harder for people to plan a pathway to permanent residency but the laws won't change too much."

"There are major changes going on, but the business community and lawyers have demonstrated resiliency in [previous] changes to legislative framework. There are ebbs and flows, but at this point there are major changes and it will be a work in progress until March 2018."

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