Legal aid system audited

Cayman Islands Auditor General Dan Duguay said Wednesday he has begun a financial review of the country’s legal aid scheme.

legal aid system

Mr. Duguay

The review comes amid a seemingly continuous controversy surrounding the system that provides legal representation to those who cannot afford it in criminal and some civil court cases.

Mr. Duguay said he had originally requested to do the audit in November while speaking with Chief Justice Anthony Smellie. Cayman Islands Premier McKeeva Bush had earlier pointed out in a Legislative Assembly debate on the issue that the country’s legal aid system had never been audited.

Mr. Duguay met with members of the newly formed Legal Aid Review Committee on Wednesday to inform them of his office’s audit. He said the announcement was well received.

The auditor general said he had no intention of entering the political debate over whether the Cayman Islands should keep its legal aid system, or if it should switch to a public defender/legal aid services office – as Premier Bush has proposed.

“We’re certainly not trying to determine which process is better,” Mr. Duguay said.

Concerns expressed by the Legal Aid Review Committee on Wednesday were two-fold, the auditor general said. First, he said the six-member group wanted to know how much had been spent on legal aid and why costs had escalated. Second, it was concerned about the equal distribution of legal aid among various attorneys.

Mr. Duguay said the audit would help determine whether certain lawyers or certain law firms were given preferential treatment in the awarding of legal aid.

“If this process was done unfairly, we may very well identify (who received the funds),” he said.

Not many attorneys actually volunteer to take legal aid defence cases in the Cayman Islands. There is a core group that fluctuates between roughly seven and 12 lawyers that do most of the work.

Two Cayman Islands law firms that had been providing attorneys to fulfil legal aid services no longer do so. One firm, Walkers, closed its criminal services division because of cost; another, Mourant, is no longer taking on new legal aid cases.

According to government budget figures, Cayman’s legal aid costs have gone from $556,818 in 1999 to approximately $1.85 million in the government’s 2008/09 budget, which closed out on 30 June.

The $1.85 million fund for the current budget year was cut to $300,000 to take the current legal aid system through this month. Another $500,000 was set aside to fund the proposed legal aid services office. The rest of the money was diverted to other public projects.

However, former Governor Stuart Jack essentially delayed the change over to the legal aid services office in the weeks before his departure by requiring that a full review by all stakeholders be commenced. The Legal Aid Review Committee was formed for that purpose.

The committee’s work is expected to be complete by 1 February.

Mr. Duguay said he hoped to have a draft audit of the legal aid system, covering at least the last five years, to the committee by the end of January. He said it would likely take a bit longer to have a complete report presented to the Legislative Assembly.

“My report will be just one piece of information to assist the committee in its work,” he said.

There has already been some grumbling about the make-up of the committee, which includes local attorney Steve McField – who first proposed the change over to a legal aid services office to government – and George Town MLA Ellio Solomon, a backbench member of Mr. Bush’s government.

None of the attorneys who provide legal aid or legal societies that represent Cayman Islands defence lawyers is represented on the committee.