Criminal department loss causes concern

The Cayman Islands Criminal Defence Bar Association described the closure of Walkers’ criminal litigation department as a red flag to the future of corporate law firms taking on legal aid and pro bono work.

Speaking on behalf of the association, its chairman John Furniss and deputy chairman Lloyd Samson said in a statement to the Caymanian Compass: ‘We believe that the closure of Walkers’ criminal department is a red flag. Whilst our membership remains committed to the practice of criminal law, that commitment must always be subject to commercial and financial realities.’

Walkers revealed last week that it was in the process of laying off 8 per cent of its staff locally and globally.

According to a Walkers spokesman, the firm is laying off 15 or 16 staff in Cayman and more than 30 others in its offices overseas, and will close its criminal litigation and real estate offices in September this year.

‘If a firm is minded to cut costs in the current climate, it is inevitable that its criminal department will immediately come under review because criminal work is less commercially viable than almost all other areas of law,’ the defence association officials said.

In Cayman, six attorneys operate almost exclusively in legal aid and pro bono criminal defence work, and another seven to 10 attorneys conduct some criminal legal aid work.

The Criminal Defence Bar Association does not keep such statistics of how many legal aid cases each attorney takes on, but last year there were 173 applications for legal aid in criminal cases in 2008, one more than the 172 received in 2007.

With legal aid, lawyers are paid about 40 per cent of commercial rates and the legal aid rate of payment has been frozen since September 2003. During that period, the consumer price index in Cayman has risen more than 20 per cent.

‘This does not include substantial increases in Cayman Islands Government fees – operational licences, practising certificates, work permits – levied on all lawyers, including those who practise criminal law. The new government will need to review rates if the present system is to survive,’ according to the association.

‘Secondly, each year the legal aid system is plagued by unrealistic under-funding at the start of the financial year, the result being that criminal lawyers go unpaid for many months while the Government debates the grant of that which should have been budgeted in the first place,’ Mr. Furniss and Mr. Lloyd said in their emailed response to the Compass.

Cayman’s legal aid budget ran dry in mid-December – half-way through the financial year – after legislators provided only $937,000 of the $1.85 million court administrators said they needed. The additional funds were made available by the Finance Committee in February.

This was the fourth consecutive year legislators had insisted on half-funding the program. In the past three financial years they eventually paid out the remaining funds after the first allotment ran out.