The Cayman Islands Criminal Defence Bar Association has laid into the government’s draft Legal Aid and Pro Bono Services Bill, stating many clauses in the proposal are “unworkable” and asking for a “radical reconsideration”.
“[A number of clauses in the bill] represent an unjustified and unsustainable attack upon criminal defence attorneys undertaking publicly funded work,” read a statement released Friday by the association and signed by its President John Furniss.
All practicing attorneys in the Cayman Islands would be forced to work a certain number of hours for free or pay an annual fee of $2,500, according to a draft of the Legal Aid and Pro Bono Legal Services Bill, 2012 released for public comment last month.
According to a summary of the proposal, every attorney-at-law in the Islands to whom a practicing certificate has been issued “shall render pro bono legal services to persons in accordance with this legislation”, or face discipline under the territory’s Legal Practitioners Law.
Attorneys can have their requirement for pro bono services discharged by annually providing at least 25 free work hours at the request of the court system’s director of legal aid services or by paying an annual fee of $2,500.
Right now, legal aid services – providing attorneys to poor and/or indigent defendants; mainly in criminal cases – costs the Cayman Islands roughly $1.8 million per year. The money is controlled by the Ministry of Finance under the law, but the courts administration office handles the assignment of legal aid cases. Private practice lawyers undertake legal aid and are paid a set fee of $135 per hour for their work.
“The underlying proposition that attorneys should be responsible for the funding of the legal aid system is fundamentally misconceived,” the defence bar opined. “Will doctors be required to work for free if there is a funding shortage for public health care?”
In some cases, the bill could force attorneys who have no experience in criminal law to undertake cases that they are not qualified for, or insured to handle, the attorneys group said.
Moreover, attorneys said a cap on legal aid payments suggested in the draft bill could lead to a situation where lawyers who are willing to do the work are unable to, and other lawyers may simply be unavailable or unwilling to do legal aid work.
“[The draft bill] assumes that there are more attorneys in the Cayman Islands who are willing to accept legal aid work at $135 [per hour],” the attorneys said. “Such an assumption is simply wrong given there is already a shortage of practitioners willing to accept legal aid work.”
The draft Legal Aid Bill was circulated only for public comment and is not yet scheduled to come before the Legislative Assembly for approval.