Legal aid shocker

In a move that stunned on-lookers and opposition party members of Cayman’s Legislative Assembly, the ruling government gutted the already-approved budget for legal aid services in a late-night, last minute proposal before the assembly’s Finance Committee.

Last week, Cayman Islands Attorney General Sam Bulgin asked for and received CI $1.85 million for the provision of legal aid services for the current budget year. Legal aid is public funding paid to lawyers to represent indigent clients, mainly in criminal matters.

Just a few days after the LA’s Finance Committee had approved the full amount, lawmakers took a Monday night vote that reduced the legal aid budget to just $300,000 for the year.

In the same motion, Leader of Government Business McKeeva Bush proposed to add an extra CI $500,000 to form a ‘legal aid office’ which he said would be headed up by local lawyers Steve McField and Theresa Pitcairn-Lewis.

Mr. Bush said the $500,000 was not the full year budget for legal aid services, and estimated the total cost of operating the office would be closer to CI $1.2 million. He said the funding amount of $300,000 was left in the current legal aid budget to take care of any on-going criminal matters.

Mr. Bush said he expected there would be significant annual savings achieved by the creation of the legal aid office. He also indicated that amendments to the Legal Aid Law would be needed before the legal aid office could be created.

In addition, funding for legal aid services would shift in the budget. The item currently falls under the appropriations section for the chief justice. The new amount for the legal aid office expenditures will fall under the direction of the minister of finance, tourism and planning – the position currently held by Mr. Bush.

Opposition party members, who knew nothing of the proposal before it was announced at 8.30pm Monday, said they were stunned at the development.

‘In nine years in this house, I have never seen anything quite like this,’ Opposition MLA Alden McLaughlin, a lawyer, said. ‘Where are the views of the Attorney General on this matter? What are the views of the Chief Justice?’

Mr. McLaughlin said he was concerned that the last minute proposal was made without consultation, that no bids had been received for the creation of the new legal aid office, and that control of the expenditure would fall to an elected minister of government.

‘The staggering proposition that the dispensation of funds for legal aid is going to be given to the Premier designate…just the appearance of the chief executive having it within their remit to decide who receives funds for legal aid…is very worrying,’ Mr. McLaughlin said.

Mr. Bush said Mr. McLaughlin was scare-mongering and called claims of the country’s Premier ‘dispensing’ legal aid funds was ‘rubbish.’

The leader said ruling government members had met with Mrs. Pitcairn-Lewis and Mr. McField about the legal aid office and found their proposals sensible. Whether those two lawyers alone would provide aid in all legal aid cases was unclear. Legal aid is currently provided by somewhere between five and ten attorneys in Cayman.

‘I believe this is the right way to go and if we are not satisfied…it can be revamped,’ Mr. Bush said, adding that he believed more needed to be done to control skyrocketing costs of legal assistance in Cayman over the past five years.

‘It seems that every conceivable case now that comes before our courts…legal aid is asked,’ Mr. Bush said.

Read much more on this story in Wednesday’s editions of the Caymanian Compass…