Less than a week following the approval of $1.85 million worth of legal aid funds in the budget last week, the government – with little discussion – gutted the fund and announced it was creating an entirely new administrative system for legal aid and allocating much of the original funding to other projects.
We’re not sure if Attorney General Sam Bulgin, who was present for the original budget funding, or Chief Justice Anthony Smellie were even aware the proposed changes because both were apparently off island this week. We understand, however, that Mr. Bulgin’s deputy, Solicitor General Cheryll Richards, was consulted about the move, along with a courts administrator.
It was also indicated that discussions were held between government members and the two lawyers now presumably responsible for legal aid, Steve McField and Theresa Pitcairn-Lewis, to come up with this plan. The idea is that the new system will save the Cayman Islands money, which it might indeed do.
However, there are many questions that should be discussed first. For instance, was the legal profession or the judiciary consulted on this? Will there just be Mr. McField and Mrs. Pitcairn-Lewis representing defendants in need of legal aid in the future? Will there be provisions for the hiring of specialised attorneys, especially in complex criminal cases?
Another question concerns the appropriateness of what amounts to political appointees running the legal aid system. Will all defendants in need of legal aid, no matter what their political alliance or nationality, always have access to good representation under the plan? What safeguards are in place to ensure this?
It is true that Cayman’s legal aid system has been in a mess in recent years, with funding a continual problem. While we applaud the government for trying to do something to address the mess, we believe any solution should be well thought out and discussed in advance, rather than rashly put forward.