‘No financial records’ for legal aid

The system that provides lawyers
for economically disadvantaged criminal defendants and civil court case
participants in the Cayman Islands is disorganised
and chronically under funded, a recent review by the Cayman Islands Auditor
General found.

The lack of records management and
lack of consistent funding has led to a situation where some lawyers participating
in the legal aid system are not being paid timely, or at all. It has also led
to a lack of reliable information being provided to lawmakers who must then
decide how much to spend on the annual legal aid budget.

In the financial audit of the legal
aid system, compiled based on information available over the last five
government budget years, Auditor General Dan Duguay found that legal aid cases
since 2004 were costing Cayman between CI $1.7 million to CI $1.9 million per
year. However, Mr. Duguay said the legal aid system was typically given half or
even a third of that amount to begin the year – requiring that supplemental
funds be provided by government later on.

For instance, in the current
2009/10 budget year, some $300,000 was initially set aside for current legal
aid cases. By 31 December – the mid-way point of government’s budget year –
more than $1 million had been spent on legal aid cases.

The report also noted that at least
$100,000 – possibly much more – was owed to legal aid attorneys. However, that
exact amount was completely unknown because of the lack of record keeping and
the fact that the courts are using a different accounting system that central

“It’s just a free-for-all there,”
auditor manager Martin Ruben said of the legal aid administration. “There are
basically no financial records being maintained.”

Mr. Ruben said there are no
computerised records for legal aid claims. Those are generally made by attorneys
after they have completed work on a case by way of a written invoice.

The invoices are kept in a
less-than-organised manner, Mr. Ruben said.

“Some are in files, some are in
folders, some are sitting on the taxing officers’ desk, some are sitting on the
(legal aid administrator’s) desk,” he said.

Record-keeping within the judicial
administration could not be used to determine how much of that money is being
spent on legal aid work for criminal cases and how much went for civil cases.
There was a breakdown of how many cases were granted legal aid.

Previously, Cayman Islands Chief
Justice Anthony Smellie has said approximately 90 per cent of the country’s
criminal cases qualify for legal aid. However, in the last two years audit
figures showed that percentage has dropped to below 80 per cent.  

The Chief Justice also told
auditors that the legal aid system was putting caps on spending for criminal
cases more frequently. Also, figures showed only a third of legal aid applications
in civil cases over the last two years had been approved.

Mr. Smellie noted in his response
to the audit that only one employee at the courts system is charged with the
administration of legal aid, and that more funding was needed to upgrade the
management processes and to computerise records.

He also said certain legislative
changes were required to improve the current administration of the legal aid
system, several of which were identified in the report.

Please read more about this story
in Monday’s Caymanian Compass…