More than 75 percent of the members of Cayman’s two major lawyers associations urged lawmakers this week to approve the Legal Practitioners Bill, seeking to update a regulatory code for the legal profession that dates to the 1960s.
The Cayman Islands Law Society said Wednesday that more than 80 percent of its members back the legislation.
The Caymanian Bar Association said Thursday that 77 percent of its member firms and sole practitioners have also agreed to support the current legislation.
Meanwhile, opposition legislators said this week that they have fielded numerous calls and messages from Caymanian lawyers who oppose the plan but are too afraid to speak out for fear of retribution by their employers.
The updated version of the Legal Practitioners Bill is expected to come before the Legislative Assembly shortly. It is at least the third time lawmakers have attempted to revise the bill within the past decade.
The crux of the dispute centers on law firms that wish to expand their presence in overseas financial services markets to remain competitive in what has become a global industry, on the one hand, and on the other hand, Caymanian-born attorneys who fear they will be left behind in that expansion and believe that globalization will lead to outsourcing.
Cayman Islands Law Society President Alasdair Robertson said in a statement released Wednesday that overseas expansion for local firms already has, and will continue to create job opportunities for Caymanians.
“So far, Caymanian law firms have given 46 Caymanian lawyers, including four articled clerks, the opportunity to work abroad, and with this new framework, I can see that increasing,” Mr. Robertson said. “It will also create opportunities for Caymanian lawyers to be admitted in England, therefore increasing their opportunities to work in a global legal industry.”
“There must be a balance between protectionism and the need to compete globally,” Caymanian Bar Association President Abraham Thoppil said. “Individuals can honestly differ as to where the balance lies, but the status-quo is much worse since the lack of a modern law has an adverse effect on Caymanians within the profession.”
Mr. Robertson said the latest draft of the Legal Practitioners Bill (2016) – which has been subject to legislative discussions for the past 15 years – will create a regulatory body to represent the entire profession in the islands. A majority of its members (five of eight) must be Caymanian, and the board will have significant disciplinary powers over individual lawyers and firms that fail to hire qualified local candidates.
“With over 240 Caymanian attorneys on the roll and over 50 trainee lawyers trained by the profession over the last 50 years, we support the requirements of the Legal Practitioners Bill to put in place best-practice guidelines,” Mr. Robertson said. “The outdated provisions of the [bill] of 1969 passed when there were only 30 practicing lawyers on the island. Today, there are over 600 lawyers.”
The legislation is also considered critical to prepare Cayman for the mid-2017 Caribbean Financial Action Task Force review of the islands’ protections against money laundering and terrorism financing.
The Legal Practitioners Bill is one of several pieces of legislation that have either been passed recently or which are due to be considered this month in preparation for the 2017 Financial Action Task Force review. Financial Services Minister Wayne Panton said the lawyers bill will demonstrate the legal profession’s adherence to the task force anti-money laundering recommendations.
Although opposition lawmakers have alluded to concerns among local attorneys about the legislation, few have spoken out publicly against the bill.
One Caymanian attorney sent a letter to all 18 elected lawmakers on Oct. 2 that laid out nine pages of specific concerns about it being “rushed to be tabled before the Legislative Assembly.”
“My main concern with this current draft Legal Practitioners Bill is that it has been drafted in such a way as to maximize the benefits for large international firms who wish to practice Cayman Islands law outside of the jurisdiction at the expense of smaller, local firms and the Cayman Islands economy as a whole, whilst also not providing for adequate checks and balances to ensure compliance and not offering anything in the way of encouraging training and advancement of Caymanian attorneys-at-law,” wrote Selina Tibbetts.
“I am not opposed to having practitioners practice Cayman law overseas,” she continued. “However, I strongly believe that the manner in which we regulate, enforce and supervise overseas practice is vital for the future Caymanian generations to have the opportunity to practice as attorneys-at-law within their own country.”
Ms. Tibbetts also pointed out several sections of the bill that she said are “inconsistent” and one in particular that could be considered unconstitutional. She asked legislators to consider delaying a vote on the current draft of the bill until further stakeholder input can be considered.
Opposition Leader McKeeva Bush, who broached the issue of local attorneys being afraid to speak out on the bill, supported Ms. Tibbetts’s call for delay. Mr. Bush suggested that the legislation be revised and taken up again by the Legislative Assembly in December. The administration has not yet responded to the opposition leader’s request.
Mr. Bush said the bill fails in its attempt to balance protecting Cayman’s financial services industry and ensuring Caymanian attorneys can receive “a piece of the pie” by gaining employment and promotions in local law firms.
George Town MLA Winston Connolly, a lawyer, has long argued that Caymanian attorneys are being left behind, particularly with regard to promotions at the larger local firms.
“We need to modernize how lawyers practice, their obligations, code of conduct … no one is arguing that,” Mr. Connolly said earlier this month. “People are missing the part where Caymanians – one set of Caymanians – the Caymanians that are born here, are not represented in the highest jobs in the profession.”