Minister: We won’t ‘nationalize’ law firms

Financial Services Minister Wayne Panton speaks to residents, mostly attorneys, Thursday night about the Legal Practitioners Bill. - Photo: Brent Fuller

The redrafted Legal Practitioners Bill will provide more and greater opportunities for Caymanian attorneys to get jobs and promotions in the legal profession than ever before, Financial Services Minister Wayne Panton said last week.

However, the bill will not seek to force law firms to hire specific people because of “who they are” and will not require “nationalization” of locally operating legal services providers.

“We cannot go down the road of creating some sort of concept of graduated nationalization of law firms in Cayman,” Mr. Panton told about 200 people, mostly attorneys, during a public meeting about the Legal Practitioners Bill on Thursday night at the Family Life Centre in George Town. The controversial legislation is expected to be considered by Legislative Assembly members this week. It was placed on the assembly business paper on Friday.

Mr. Panton’s comments came in response to some attorneys who asked about government’s plan to progress Caymanian lawyers through the ranks of law firms in the next two decades. One attorney, Richard Barton, said it didn’t appear the latest draft of the bill would assist much with that.

“We are regulating an industry that we do not own,” Mr. Barton said, referring to the legal profession in the Cayman Islands. “I would like to know, what is your desire for the progression of the industry 20 years from now.”

Mr. Panton said he expects that as more young Caymanians enter the legal profession over the years as articled clerks and junior associates, they will steadily work their way up and the progression issue will take care of itself. However, the minister cautioned against making overly stringent rules for the legal profession that could end up harming Cayman’s financial services industry.

“Caymanians are proud. They don’t deserve a suggestion that they should be given something just because of who they are.”

“Bermuda said you had to be Bermudian to be a [law firm] partner,” the minister said. “Compare Bermuda to Cayman today. Bermuda was as big a player in the international financial services industry as Cayman at one time. That’s not the case today. One of the reasons is they had a rule in place…that did not serve the interests of the country and did not serve the interests of the economy.

“Caymanians are proud. They don’t deserve a suggestion that they should be given something just because of who they are.”

Attorney Anthony Akiwumi asked Minister Panton how local attorneys are supposed to gain relevant experience or even find daily employment when the courts are being “flooded every week by lawyers from overseas” who receive limited admission to the local attorneys Bar in order to work on specific cases.

“There are no other jurisdictions…in which it is possible for counsel to get on a plane, fly in on a Saturday afternoon, sip a gin and tonic at The Ritz-Carlton Saturday evening and be appearing in a heavy commercial case Monday morning,” Mr. Akiwumi said. He argued that other jurisdictions in the Caribbean require certain “justifications” prior to the use of such limited admission attorneys. The current draft of the Legal Practitioners Bill has none of those protections, he said.

“I invite you to go to Court No. 5 [where the Saad Investments trial is under way], and you will feel you have walked into a court in London,” Mr. Akiwumi said.

Mr. Panton and other members of a legal panel that included partners from top firms such as Walkers Global, Ogier and Maples, noted that the new draft of the lawyers bill contains a number of protections for local attorneys that do not exist in the current law, which dates to 1969 – when there were 30 practicing attorneys in Cayman. Today there are about 675 licensed attorneys.

Mr. Panton said there are also new protections for the Cayman Islands as a jurisdiction in the latest draft bill.

“We know that there are firms overseas that have absolutely no connection to Cayman that are practicing Cayman Islands law,” he said. “This bill will put a stop to that.”

Far more stringent rules have been put in place regarding hiring outside attorneys on work permits, including requirements for a separate business staffing plan for law firms and the ability of a majority Caymanian regulatory body – created under the bill – to regulate the industry and to discipline firms that fail to hire qualified local candidates.

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 review. Financial Services Minister Wayne Panton said the lawyers bill will demonstrate the legal profession’s adherence to the task force’s anti-money laundering recommendations.