Legal aid cash moved to ministry

Some
$1.85 million for the provision of legal assistance to those in Cayman who
can’t afford it is now under the control of the Ministry of Finance, Tourism
and Development, according to government budget documents.

However,
it was unclear upon examination of those records and from speaking with court
staff whether that money would be used in the current fiscal year to create a
Legal Aid Services Office, as was envisioned by Premier McKeeva Bush, or if
some transitional period would be required first.

Court
Administrator Delene Cacho said staff had not received any instructions
regarding legal aid.

“We
are continuing, according to the Law, to process applications as and when they
are presented to us,” Mrs. Cacho wrote in an email response to Caymanian
Compass questions.

Currently,
private sector attorneys who are willing, provide legal help to those
determined to be indigent – mainly in criminal court cases – for a set fee of
$135 per hour. Under the Legal Aid Services budget, it is noted that the
service supplier will be “various law firms”.

Mr.
Bush last year proposed changing the legal aid system from the current
“judicare” model, to a Legal Aid Services Office – similar to a public defender’s
office. It was envisioned that the office would be run by two attorneys and a
staff of salaried lawyers would assist individuals who qualified for legal aid
services.

Some
changes to the country’s Legal Aid Law would need to be made to create the new
system. Those had not been done at press time.

The
budget refers to the office, which will “administer advice and representation
and offer a wide range of services, including landlord and employer problems to
protection from gender violence, in addition to defending those facing criminal
charges”.

The
records also expressly state that the legal aid office will deal with requests
for assistance, “which will be means-tested based on the applicant’s salary and
property ownership”.

The
office is also intended to provide training for young lawyers, according to the
budget documents.

However,
there are also some small costs associated with the administration of legal aid
contained in the courts’ budget. The specific amount is not identified, but the
money is earmarked to pay for the processing of legal aid applications –
anywhere from 300 to 400 per year.

Premier
Bush once estimated the costs of operating the Legal Aid Services Office at
$1.2 million for a full year. The total amount placed in the government budget
for the 2010/11 fiscal year set aside $1.9 million for legal aid costs.

Opposition
lawmakers have previously expressed concern about the shift of funds from
judicial administration to the ministry of finance.

“The
staggering proposition that the dispensation of funds for legal aid is going to
be given to the premier…just the appearance of the chief executive having it
within their remit to decide who receives funds for legal aid…is very worrying,”
George Town MLA Alden McLaughlin said during a Legislative Assembly Finance
Committee meeting last October.

Mr.
Bush said Mr. McLaughlin was scare–mongering and called claims of the country’s
premier dispensing the funds “rubbish”. He noted that Solicitor General Cheryll
Richards and a courts administrator – Mrs. Cacho – had been consulted about the
changes.

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