The Cayman Islands government will seek once again to reform the system used to provide attorneys to indigent defendants in criminal cases and participants in some civil court cases.
Premier Alden McLaughlin said during his budget address last week that the Legal Aid Bill, 2012, is being drafted to “ensure the more efficient management” of legal aid.
“The bill provides for the establishment of a legal aid office with a legally qualified attorney as director and other supporting staff,” Mr. McLaughlin said.
Costs for the provision of legal aid services have steadily risen over the past decade in this British overseas territory, going from $1.85 million budgeted during the 2010/11 fiscal year to a budgeted $2.5 million in the current 2013/14 budget.
The money for legal aid services is now managed by the judicial administration arm of the courts and is awarded to private practice attorneys on an as-needed case basis. Those attorneys are paid $135 an hour for their work, which is a rate typically two to three times lower than they would receive in private practice.
Questions regarding how to reduce the cost of legal aid services have been addressed by successive governments, but various plans made by the former United Democratic Party administration for a legal aid office fell by the wayside.
In 2009, former Premier McKeeva Bush proposed changing the legal aid system from the current model to create a Legal Services Office – similar to a public defender’s office in other jurisdictions. It was envisioned at the time that the office would be run by two attorneys and a staff of salaried lawyers who would assist individuals qualified to receive legal aid.
The court system indicated at the time and, according to court administrator Kevin McCormac, still maintains a concern about the costs of opening such an office, which requires administrative staff, electric bills, rent and other expenses that are now covered by the local law firms and private practice attorneys who provide legal aid.
Mr. McCormac also noted Tuesday that the court had reservations concerning whether government would still have to pay attorneys in a legal services office on an ongoing basis if there were fewer cases before the court and, thereby, not enough work for them to do year round.
“We’re still in the discussion stage at the moment,” he said.
After the previous government essentially dropped the idea of a legal aid services office, another proposal surfaced in 2012 – the Legal Aid and Pro Bono Legal Services Bill. That proposal would have required all practicing attorneys in the Cayman Islands to work a certain number of hours for free or pay an annual fee of $2,500.
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 could 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.
Again, the proposal never made it to the Legislative Assembly floor for a vote.