Cayman in legal aid quagmire

Nearly $1.8 million will have been spent by the end of Cayman’s current budget year on free legal help in criminal and civil cases for people who can’t afford lawyers.

Last week, lawmakers approved an additional $625,000 for the current budget to help pay attorneys who hadn’t received cheques from the government in some time.

Another $919,000 has been approved for legal aid by the Legislative Assembly’s Finance Committee for the next budget year, which begins 1 July.

‘There are attorneys who have been performing legal services for us who simply have not been paid for at least a month or two,’ Clerk of the Courts Mr. Valdis Foldats told the Cayman Islands Legislative Assembly.

LA members eventually approved the expenses. However, some opposition party members voted against the expenditure in the upcoming budget year. Several legislators questioned Mr. Foldats on why costs for legal aid keep going up.

Under Cayman Islands law, if someone is determined to be indigent, the judge or magistrate presiding over their case will appoint an attorney to represent them.

Generally, legal aid in criminal matters is available only for Grand Court cases, or in those crimes punishable by a sentence of 14 years or longer.

Attorney General Samuel Bulgin told assembly members last week that costs to the country for that representation have more than doubled in the past four years.

In the Cayman Islands 2003-04 budget, the cost of free legal aid was just over $821,000.

The next year it had jumped to $1.5 million; last year it went up to $1.73 million. With the additional spending in this year’s budget, costs increased slightly to $1.77 million.

Mr. Foldats said the court had initially requested $1.7 million for legal aid at the start of the current year’s spending plan, but he said that amount was cut during the budget process. He said the additional spending of $625,000 took the courts system up to what it requested for legal aid at the beginning of the year.

‘It seems as though more defendants are taking their cases to trial,’ Mr. Foldats said. ‘It may have been in the past that people pled guilty sooner. We’re having a lot of trials in serious criminal cases.’

He said the number of Grand Court trials per week had gone from one to two this year in attempts to speed up cases in the criminal legal system.

On the civil courts side, Mr. Foldats said it seemed there were a large number of divorce cases and custody issues that often accompany those matters.

‘There’s just been an increase in those types of cases,’ he said.

Mr. Bulgin said the Cayman Islands Law Reform Commission is undertaking a review of the legal aid system with an eye to determining why Cayman pays so much more for that aid than other British Overseas Territories.

For instance, Mr. Bulgin said the British Virgin Islands spends about US $79,000 on legal aid in an entire budget year. Mr. Bulgin said Anguilla has no specific budget for legal aid, and operates on an as-needed basis.

Lawmakers also questioned Mr. Bulgin and Mr. Foldats on why so many attorneys from overseas were being called in to assist local attorneys, particularly in criminal cases.

‘We have too high a frequency of that phenomenon,’ said Opposition MLA Rolston Anglin.

Mr. Anglin proposed an amendment to cut the amount of legal aid in the upcoming budget from $919,000 to $459,500. His amendment also would have made that money available only to Caymanian attorneys.

The proposed amendment failed on a seven-to-five vote split directly along party lines.

‘The government acknowledges there is a problem with legal aid, but we cannot arbitrarily reduce the amount,’ said Education Minister Alden McLaughlin following the vote on Mr. Anglin’s amendment. ‘The people who hurt most where there isn’t proper provision (for legal aid) are Caymanian lawyers.’

Mr. Bulgin said the Law Reform Commission would look at several issues in connection with the island’s legal aid policy, including how applicants’ answers on means tests administered by the courts are verified. Those tests are given to determine whether the applicant has enough money to pay a lawyer on their own.

He said government was considering whether a public defender’s office or a duty counsel should be established. The Law Reform Commission is also looking into whether legal aid should be granted by the court, or by some other independent body.

Caymanian Compass staffer Carol Winker contributed to this report.