Attorney General: Human rights drive up legal aid costs

The cost of providing legal representation to indigent criminal court defendants, as well as in certain civil and family court cases, has nearly doubled over the past five years.

Cayman Islands Attorney General Sam Bulgin told the Legislative Assembly on Monday that the legal aid budget has increased from what was a “$1.5 million [per year] constant” to $2.7 million in the upcoming 2015/16 government fiscal year.

“This has been brought about in large part by the advent of a bill of rights [in the Cayman Islands Constitution Order, 2009] as well as a new Children Law and the increased need for legal aid assistance,” Mr. Bulgin said.

A number of changes proposed for the current Legal Aid Law will be brought before Cabinet “shortly,” according to Mr. Bulgin, but few are likely to save government money on the provision of legal aid services.

One of the requirements in the draft bill, which had not been made public as of press time, will ensure that a “duty counsel” is available to provide legal advice to detainees at local police stations prior to the arrested subject being interviewed by officers. “It is a constitutional requirement,” Mr. Bulgin said.

Another change to the Legal Aid Law is a general clarification of what legal services can be provided under the Legal Aid Law. Typically, the large majority of those funds have been distributed in criminal cases, but the attorney general said the fund should not be limited to criminal court.

Mr. Bulgin said civil law courts and family courts are also candidates for legal aid assistance, particularly in cases involving child care, custody and adoption matters.

To help determine who receives legal aid, the revised law will seek to establish a “director of legal aid” under the judicial administration whose job it will be to receive and consider applications for that funding. The director will also maintain a list of local attorneys willing to undertake legal aid work.

Historically in Cayman, fewer than a dozen attorneys provide representation to legal aid clients, although in recent years there have been a few more added to that list. They are paid $135 per hour, which is comparatively low compared to legal fees charged to non-indigent defendants or participants in civil cases. Those fees can range anywhere from $350 to $750 per hour, or higher, depending on the nature of the case.

In previous years, the payment of legal aid fees by government has been delayed for months at a time when the fund “ran out” and had to be replenished by additional payments.