Review aims to streamline legal aid

A committee review of the system that provides government-paid lawyers for indigent criminal defendants and parties in some civil court cases will focus on seven separate areas, according to the terms of reference set out for the study.

The Cayman Islands government is embarking on an attempt to change its current model for distributing legal aid from a system that now uses attorneys from private law firms who are paid by the court, to a Legal Services Office run by the government under the direction of the Ministry of Finance.

While the current review of that system is being conducted, private lawyers are still being paid out of government coffers under the current legal aid payment system – known as the judicare system.

According to the Legal Aid Review Committee’s terms, the six-member committee will seek to determine why legal aid costs have escalated so much in the current system.

Government budget figures show that annual legal aid costs went from $556,818 in 1999 to about $1.85 million in the government’s 2008/09 budget year.

The committee is also receiving assistance from Cayman Islands Auditor General Dan Duguay, who is now carrying out an audit of the legal aid system covering the past five years.

The management structure of Cayman’s current legal aid system will also be studied. The proposal lawmakers approved earlier this year called for a major change – to essentially shift control of legal aid funding away from the Chief Justice’s office and into a government ministry.

There were some claims, mainly from opposition lawmakers, that this would affect the independent provision of legal aid services.

According to the terms of reference, the committee will seek to: ‘analyse and report on the advantages or disadvantages between the proposed plan of an independent community-based organisation (Legal Services Office) staffed with salaried legal aid attorneys and the present judicial administration system based on a volunteer roster of attorneys.’

The Legal Services Office would also seek to provide a wider range of legal aid services to low income Caymanians, for instance; those who might need representation before an immigration board or the Labour Appeals Tribunal.

Right now, the vast majority of legal aid services provided are for criminal defence cases.

Both the Caymanian Bar Association and the Cayman Islands Law Society have questioned the plan to expand legal aid services while reducing the annual budget for legal aid from $1.85 million to approximately $1.2 million, as the current government has proposed.

The committee will also seek to streamline the current means test used to determine whether someone qualifies for legal aid services. According to Chief Justice Anthony Smellie, in 2007 some 90 per cent of all criminal defendants qualified for some form of legal aid.

The government also wants the Legal Aid Review Committee to examine how even partial costs may be recovered from defendants in legal aid cases, but admits there may be a growing need for legal aid during a time of economic recession.