Editorial for 22 May: Legal aid bill needs close review

To call the draft of the Legal Aid and Pro Bono Legal
Services Bill, 2012, shocking might be an overstatement; but fair enough to say
that – if it is passed in anything close to its current form – it will have a
profound effect on the practice of law in this jurisdiction and likely at least
some effect on the quality of attorneys we are able to attract here.

What government is trying to do, in our view, is to defray
legal aid costs that are draining this territory of somewhere between $1.5
million and $2 million each year.

To accomplish this, the draft bill seeks to either; a)
require a certain number of hours of free work from each attorney licensed to
practice in the Cayman Islands or, b) have those attorneys pay $2,500 per year
to avoid pro bono legal aid work.

We believe the assumption is that most financial industry
lawyers here, who make quite a bit of money and who rarely, if ever, have
practised criminal law, will just pay the $2,500 fee to help support the
government’s legal aid fund. We hope that is the result; we could think of some
other potential results that would not be quite as positive.

The draft bill goes on to set limits on how much money
someone can earn from the legal aid fund, potentially affecting both the
defendant’s right to choose their counsel and likely the quality of the
representative they will have to assist them.

To put it bluntly folks, lawyers usually earn more than $80,000
a year.

Moreover, consideration must be given to a number of laws
and regulations recently approved that weaken long-held protections for the
accused; including reversal of the burden of proof in firearms cases and the
ability of the police to conduct covert spying on basically anyone in the
Islands without the subject’s knowledge.

A strong and credible legal aid system is therefore more
crucial than ever to ensure individuals who cannot afford it are provided
adequate representation before the court.

We have significant concern about this draft bill.

 

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2 COMMENTS

  1. This is a fairly short-sighted proposal on several levels.

    Firstly, and most obviously, there are very few lawyers in Grand Cayman qualified to do criminal work. The vast majority are specialists in trust and funds work, and would not know the first thing about defending a criminal charge. Good luck to the accused who gets one of these representing him.

    Second, the reason there are relatively few criminal practitioners at the Cayman bar is that it is very badly paid. Not just by comparison to more lucrative commercial work, but in absolute terms. It is very hard indeed to just cover your costs of criminal practice.

    Third, the suggestion that this cost should be picked up by the legal profession by way of an annual fee for avoiding pro bono work is superficially attractive, but dangerous. Cayman is facing terrific challenges to its position as a leading offshore centre as it is. The Government’s view of the finance industry as a milk cow that can be tapped to cover shortfalls in Government budget has been clearly demonstrated before (registration of master funds etc). Those costs will however be passed onto clients, and those clients have other options where they can take their business.

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