Changes to the Cayman Islands legal aid system have caused serious concerns among some defence attorneys who say delays are starting to occur in their court cases.
Several attorneys have voiced their sentiments in open court and made their ire known publicly.
In one instance, attorney Nicholas Dixey said he had a legal aid certificate to represent a man charged with importation of ganja but was not sure if it was worth anything.
Attorney John Furniss told the court he had applied for extensions on legal aid for various matters but had heard nothing.
During a recent proceeding involving several men charged with importing more than 600 pounds of ganja, attorneys said they had been directed to seek legal aid for some of the men. Those attorneys indicated no response had been received from the Courts Office. This caused the case to be delayed for weeks, as only two of the five men were represented.
Magistrate Grace Donalds, who presided over the case, said she was not inclined to have the men give their pleas without the advice of an attorney. However, one of the men charged said he could no longer wait for an attorney and requested that his plea be taken without one.
The other men in the case followed suit. It was not clear when or whether they will have legal representation.
It has not been established why there has been no response to the lawyer’s requests.
Legal Aid Officer Jennifer King, said she had no comment but indicated the requests were being processed.
There was a $1.85 million legal aid fund initially approved for the current 2009-2010 budget.
Last minute changes in Legislative Assembly’s Finance Committee reduced the amount to $300,000. This sum was expected to get the legal aid programme through December. Another $500,000 of the original $1.85 million has been allocated to set up a Legal Services Office in January.
The remaining $1.05 million will be used for other government projects.
Attorneys pointed out that such a situation could end up putting Cayman in Breach of the European Convention of Human Rights.
‘If government, by underfunding, creates a situation in which representation cannot be secured for those accused of a criminal offence within a reasonable time, then it will be in breach of this article,’ a letter sent to Leader of Government Business McKeeva Bush by attorneys from the Caymanian Bar Association and the Cayman Islands Law Society stated.
The two lawyers groups raised concerns that, in cases where overseas experts are brought to testify in trials – a practice paid for from legal aid funds – proceedings may have to be adjourned until new attorneys are appointed to respective clients.
In addition, some attorneys said they worried that if people do not have faith in the ability of a public defender’s office or its attorneys for any reason, there can be more instances of people representing themselves and going to jail.
Defence attorney Clyde Allen recently voiced another common concern among defence lawyers: ‘The decision seems to have been made without consultation with the lawyers affected, the Chief Justice, or the Attorney General.’
Mr. Allen added that there seemed to be a lack of courtesy within the decision making process.
Lawmakers have recently met with Chief Justice Anthony Smellie and other top tier representatives in the legal arena and discussions are ongoing.