Legal aid issue left hanging

Cayman Islands lawmakers recently approved almost $1 million more in this year’s budget to support legal aid services for those who the courts determine are unable to pay for their own attorneys.

However, government has apparently not gotten any closer to a long term fix for what several legislators said is disproportionate spending on legal aid.

The total budget for legal aid this year is expected to be more than $1.8 million.

But the government has only budgeted about half that, $937,000, in the fiscal year which begins on 1 July.

Last year, lawmakers also agreed to budget only half of what the clerk of the courts said was needed. A supplemental expenditure of some $931,000 was approved earlier this month to keep the system running through 30 June.

After learning of finance committee members’ concerns in 2007, Chief Justice Anthony Smellie and his staff began a comprehensive review of the legal aid system in Cayman including potential cost cutting measures and alternative methods of providing the service.

Attorney General Sam Bulgin said the chief justice has since completed that review and forwarded his report to the Law Reform Commission. Mr. Bulgin said the commission should have the report ready by the end of May.

The Legislative Assembly must approve a new spending plan before 1 July, so it’s unlikely that any changes which are recommended for the legal aid system will be put in place before Legislative Assembly votes on the budget for the 2008/09 financial year.

‘So we’re expected to go down this path again, without the (finance) committee getting a satisfactory answer again?’ West Bay MLA Rolston Anglin asked.

‘That is a distinct possibility,’ Attorney General Samuel Bulgin replied.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have said that Cayman’s spending on legal aid services is many times greater than other British Overseas Territories. They have also noted that the going rate for legal aid lawyers, $135 an hour, seems quite high to the average person.

However, attorneys who provide the service have previously said that fee is far below what private practice lawyers in Cayman and the UK generally earn, and that legal aid services are usually provided at an overall financial loss by law firms.

‘The figure is….about a third of what most lawyers would charge for doing privately paid work,’ Attorney James Austin-Smith told the Caymanian Compass last year. (See Compass 19 June, 2007) ‘There’s a perception of fat-cat lawyers making a lot of money (doing legal aid work). The reality is actually quite different.’

Although the hourly rate for legal aid services was increased a few years ago, Chief Justice Smellie has previously said that rising costs in the legal system may have little to do with lawyers and more to do with how many people are seeking legal aid.

According to figures provided by Mr. Smellie last year, legal aid costs actually tripled from 1999 to 2007. However, during that same time he said the number of criminal charges being brought before the court had gone up by some 77 per cent.

More than 90 per cent of criminal defendants qualify for legal aid in Cayman, Mr. Smellie said. A means test is administered by the court to people requesting legal aid in both criminal and civil court cases before that aid is granted.

Leader of Government Business Kurt Tibbetts asked Mr. Bulgin if the final report from the Law Reform Commission could be presented to the Legislative Assembly for public review.

Mr. Bulgin said he would ask about tabling the report in the LA, and said legislators’ concerns were not unreasonable.

In the meantime, Mr. Tibbetts said it appeared government had little choice but to approve the additional expenditure.

‘We cannot be seen to…not be allowing for those who are disenfranchised to have legal representation,’ he said.