Legal aid fund fully approved

The full-year Cayman Islands legal aid fund has, for the first time in at least four years, received approval from members of the Legislative Assembly.

Following much debate among legislators and attorneys over the amount lawyers get paid for representing indigent criminal defendants and individuals involved in certain civil court cases, it appeared that lawmakers had finally accepted that the service does indeed cost CI$1.85 million a year to provide.

That amount for legal aid was approved Friday in the LA’s Finance Committee.

Lawyers who receive payment under the programme, less than 10 of them at present, are paid CI$135 an hour to represent criminal defendants who cannot afford to pay their own lawyers. Estimates from 2007 indicated some 90 per cent of criminal defendants fall into that category.

Some legal aid is also paid in civil cases, generally those that involve divorce where children are present or where domestic abuse has been alleged. Cases that involve an infringement by government upon someone’s civil rights could also qualify for legal aid.

Although CI$135 an hour might seem high in many professions, it is actually somewhere between two and three times less than what private attorneys in Cayman typically charge for services. Some firms that provide legal aid actually do so at a loss in their overall budget.

‘There was one firm that had done very well in providing legal aid assistance that has regrettably closed its doors,’ Attorney General Sam Bulgin told the Legislative Assembly Friday.

That law firm, Walkers, closed its criminal division earlier this year because of cost.

North Side MLA Ezzard Miller questioned Mr. Bulgin as to why, particularly in serious crimes such as murder and rape, defendants felt that they were entitled to Queen’s Counsel from the United Kingdom.

Mr. Bulgin said, in some cases, local attorneys feel they do not have the experience to handle cases of this magnitude without assistance. He said in such cases a criminal defendant’s attorney will file a brief with the court and request additional aid.

‘When (Queen’s Counsels) come in, they are paid the same rate as a legal aid lawyer,’ Mr. Bulgin said, adding that a visiting QC’s travel and lodging expenses are also paid for.

In previous years, lawmakers have quibbled over the amount presented in the budget for the legal aid fund. Typically, the budget would be reduced to roughly half of what had been spent the previous year.

In December or January — mid-way through the government’s fiscal year — the legal aid fund would run out, creating a situation where legal aid attorneys often didn’t get paid for weeks or even months. In each of the last two years there were concerns that the criminal court system would have to cease operating because there were no lawyers to represent defendants.

Mr. Bulgin said a full-scale review of the legal aid system by Cayman’s Law Reform Commission was completed last year. It recommended continuing the legal aid fund, but said government should seek to recover at least some funds from those who could afford to pay.

The report also recommended placing caps on how much defence attorneys could earn in certain cases.

Revisions to the Legal Aid Law have been proposed and put forth for public comment. Lawmakers could consider the measure later in the budget year.