Legal aid review sparks controversy

The Cayman Islands Government has begun a more comprehensive review of its legal aid system following promptings by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office earlier this year.

Legal Aid

The court house in downtown George Town: Court justices say 90 per cent of criminal defendants receive some form of legal aid. Photo: Brent Fuller

There has been some behind-the-scenes grumbling already about this latest effort to revamp legal aid – the system that provides lawyers for those who cannot afford them – from local attorneys’ groups who have said they’re being left out of the discussion.

A Legal Aid Review Committee, which met for the first time Monday afternoon and plans to meet again Wednesday, consists of local attorney Steve McField, George Town MLA Ellio Solomon, courts administrator Delene Cacho, Clerk of the Courts Valdis Foldats and head of the governor’s office Steve Moore.

Cheryl Neblett of the Cayman Islands Law Reform Commission is chairing the committee.

‘We have been given a deadline of 1 February to submit a report to the Cabinet on the proposals submitted by Mr. McField and Mrs. (Theresa) Pitcairn,’ Mrs. Neblett wrote in response to Caymanian Compass questions.

Both the Caymanian Bar Association and the Cayman Islands Law Society have sent correspondence to the governor’s office expressing displeasure about not having representation on the committee reviewing legal aid.

‘The purpose of the committee is not so much a proper review…it’s really just to accomplish what they have in mind,’ local lawyer Lloyd Samson said. Mr. Samson’s firm provides most of the legal aid lawyers for criminal defendants.

Earlier this year, Premier McKeeva Bush proposed to switch the legal aid system, which is handled by lawyers from private firms who receive government funding, to a Legal Services Office set up and run by the government.

The Legal Services Office would come under the remit of the Ministry of Finance under the government’s plan. Right now, legal aid provision is administered by the courts and comes under the responsibilities of the chief justice.

Mr. McField and Mrs. Pitcairn were chosen by the elected government to run that office.

The proposal was made as a last minute amendment in the current year’s budget and caused uproar with both opposition party members and defence attorneys. Both the bar association and the law society sent strongly worded letters to Mr. Bush stating their concerns about the proposed changes.

Then-Governor Stuart Jack weighed in on the issue, stating that the UK government had concerns about human rights. Mr. Jack ordered the Cayman Islands Government to continue the legal aid funding scheme until a review of the entire system could be accomplished.

‘The system needs to be administered as cost-effectively as possible and the government is entitled to consider how this can be achieved as long as these human rights requirements are met,’ Mr. Jack stated. ‘In doing so, it is important to consult stakeholders.’

The Governor’s announcement at the very least delayed the implementation of the legal aid system Mr. Bush’s government proposed. Some $300,000 set aside for the continuance of legal aid representation in the criminal and civil courts has long since run out and it’s unclear if further funding has been approved.

‘We’re still months out of pocket,’ Mr. Samson said, referring to attorneys doing legal aid work that haven’t been paid.

Earlier this year the law firm Walkers eliminated its criminal defence office, which was largely funded via legal aid cases, and which was operated at a loss as a public service according to the firm. The Caymanian Compass has also learned that the Mourant law firm’s main legal aid attorney, Nicholas Dixey, is no longer taking new legal aid cases.

Mr. Bush has argued in support of a legal aid services office on many occasions, stating it will be cheaper to operate and will be able to provide more representation in a wider range of areas – including hearings before immigration and labour tribunals.

The premier also noted that no audit has ever been done to assess how legal aid money is being spent, and has said that it is not government’s responsibility to support local law firms that depend on legal aid cases for their daily bread.

Supporters of the legal aid services office said they believe the proposal will also draw in young Caymanians who are looking for a start in the legal profession and law school students who want work experience.