Brief comment period for legal aid

Feedback due 15 January

Cayman Islands residents have a brief period of time to put their two cents into the on-going controversy over the country’s legal aid system.

The Legal Aid Review Committee has invited members of the public to submit comments and views on any aspect of the legal aid programme – which provides lawyers for indigent criminal defendants and in some civil court cases as well.

The committee chairperson, Cheryl Neblett, has asked that written submissions by turned in no later than 15 January, posted to Mrs. Neblett c/o the Law Reform Commission, Government Administration Building.

Submissions may be e-mailed to [email protected] or can be hand delivered to the commission offices on the 3rd floor of Anderson Square in George Town.

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The Cayman Islands government has since late last year been attempting to change its current model for distributing legal aid; from a system that now utilises 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 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 over 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 effect 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 CI$1.85 million to approximately CI$1.2 million, as the current government has proposed.

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