After hearing allegations of inadequate recordkeeping and conflicts of interest on the planning board, Planning Appeals Tribunal chairwoman Theresa Pitcairn wants the Cayman Islands government to overhaul the way administrative law matters are handled.
She said she believes the various appointed tribunals across different areas of government should be replaced by a uniform administrative bench operating according to a set of coherent and consistent rules.
Ms Pitcairn said she thinks the workload could be handled by a group of two to four experienced lawyers, supported by one or two legal secretaries. She thinks the full time, paid administrative bench could pay for itself through fees from the disputing parties.
While the current tribunals touch different subjects, such as planning, immigration and labour, Ms Pitcairn said at the appeals level it all boils down to the principles of administrative law.
“These are all administrative matters,” she said.
The need for a full-time professional appellate body is especially apparent in the area of planning and development, because of the amounts of money and physical assets involved, she said.
“Planning is such a big part of our economy. When you prevent that from operating smoothly, it literally impacts the speed at which the economy moves forward,” she said. “And that, of course, impacts our employment issues.”
At the moment, an appointed body called the Central Planning Authority has the power to approve or deny proposed development projects. The authority’s decisions can be challenged in front of the appointed Planning Appeals Tribunal. From then, the tribunal’s decision can be challenged in front of the Grand Court of the Cayman Islands.
Ms Pitcairn has served on the Planning Appeals Tribunal since 2008 and has chaired the body since March 2011. During her time on the tribunal, she has fielded complaints that what is actually discussed during the planning authority meetings is not reflected in the written minutes, which are the only records of what happened during the meetings.
Ms Pitcairn believes any potential problems could be resolved by also maintaining audio records of the planning authority meetings.
Nadira Lord, operations manager/registrar of hearings for the Information Commissioner’s Office, said, “We are aware of allegations that records may not be held properly.”
Pointing to a section of the Freedom of Information Law, Ms Lord said, “All records, no matter the format (written, audio, etc.) fall under the FOI law.”
Additionally, Ms Pitcairn is concerned about recordkeeping at the tribunal level as well, saying the Ministry of Development has inadequate resources to produce accurate minutes in a timely fashion.
She said problems stemming from the voluntary makeup of the tribunal are exacerbated by the tribunal’s lack of power to hear cases without all relevant parties being present.
“There are invariably difficulties in trying to assemble all members at the same time for a hearing,” she said, saying they have to coordinate meeting dates with tribunal members, Crown counsel, attorneys, applicants and any number of objectors.
Clearing up concerns
In addition to recordkeeping concerns, people have also told Ms Pitcairn they suspect planning authority members have conflicts of interest due to their occupations. The majority of the 13 appointed planning authority members have some direct professional connection to the construction industry.
The Caymanian Compass e-mailed a request for comment on recordkeeping concerns and potential conflicts of interest to Department of Planning officials, asking them to forward the request on to all members of the planning authority and any other interested parties. As of press time, no comment had been received.
Ms Pitcairn believes having a paid administrative bench to hear appeals would help dispel notions of foul play and give developers, appellants and other parties a sense of security that everyone is playing by the same set of identifiable rules.
She said, “Not all political appointees do bad work. The bench would help dissipate the perceptions people have about that sort of thing going on.”