Opposition members of the Legislative Assembly alleged Monday that Cayman Islands law firms have denied the nation $50 million in fees over the past decade by averting local licensing. The accusation comes amid heated debate over the proposed Legal Practitioners Bill, which the members claim provides a back door to legalize lawyers practicing Cayman Islands law from abroad.
In a joint statement presented Monday, Arden McLean, Winston Connolly, Ezzard Miller, Alva Suckoo and Anthony Eden pointed to “deafening silence” from government on allegations of misconduct.
The group called for an investigation into such practices before moving forward with the draft bill, proposed by Minister Wayne Panton.
“We would welcome an independent investigation into the merits of the complaints made against these firms,” the joint statement said.
“We felt that this jurisdiction cannot simply move forward to ignore these very serious accusations made against some law firms and to blindly license certain practices, which may be, at this point in time, illegal, without at the very least, the various allegations being properly investigated and ventilated in the Legislative Assembly.”
During the Legislative Assembly’s morning session, Mr. Connolly said concerns of misconduct have been ignored for years by government, the Caymanian Bar Association and the Cayman Islands Law Society.
By ignoring misconduct concerns, he said Caymanian lawyers have been denied opportunities for advancement to the benefit of foreign attorneys and those based in international offices.
In a statement Friday, the Cayman Islands Law Society denied accusations laid out in a private members’ motion by Mr. McLean and Mr. Connolly. The motion accused unnamed Cayman Islands law firms of “intentionally ignoring and deliberately circumventing” the Legal Practitioners Law and the Immigration Law.
“We strongly object to the allegations of any breaches of the laws of the Cayman Islands and we are concerned that this motion is simply a means of diverting attention from the merits of the Legal Practitioners Bill,” the Law Society said in its statement.
“The Bill brings the framework governing Cayman’s legal profession into the modern era and must be passed in order for the Cayman Islands to comply with current international best practice. The Bill also lays a solid foundation of opportunity for current and future generations of Caymanians. It has the backing of the vast majority of the members of the Cayman Islands Law Society and the Caymanian Bar Association and we encourage all members of the Legislative Assembly to support the Bill.”
Mr. Connolly said Monday that only one Cayman Islands-educated attorney has been promoted to equity partner since 1997.
“That alone should raise questions. Either Cayman Islands law school graduates are not fit or there is some sort of impediment that does not allow them to reach upper echelons,” he said during a press briefing.
Also during the Legislative Assembly’s morning session, Mr. Connolly took issue with an editorial that appeared in Monday’s Cayman Compass criticizing the private members’ motion. Mr. Connolly singled out the newspaper and publisher David R. Legge by name in his remarks.
Mr. Legge said in response, “Let me make it clear that the issue is Mr. McLean’s and Mr. Connolly’s motion which accuses Cayman’s biggest law firms and their partners of engaging in criminal activity.
“Given Cayman’s status as an international financial center of the highest repute, this is a very dangerous approach that jeopardizes our country’s global reputation and the local economy.”
At the briefing, East End MLA Mr. McLean estimated 180 lawyers are practicing and advising on Caymanian law from overseas without local certification or licensing. He based this number on a 2007 statement by an unnamed firm and cited law firm websites as evidence enough of wrongdoing.
“Evidence is overwhelming because they have on their websites that there are people overseas practicing Cayman Islands law and they are not licensed to practice Cayman Islands law,” Mr. McLean said.
The group calculated its estimate of $50 million in unpaid fees based on the number of attorneys it presumes to be working abroad without a Cayman Islands work permit or local licensing.
Names were not provided of specific law firms that the opposition MLAs claim are currently skirting employment and immigration law.
The MLAs at Monday’s press conference have requested 32 pages of amendments to the Legal Practitioners Bill be considered before the bill is passed in the Legislative Assembly. The bill is currently before the house.
Premier Alden McLaughlin said Friday the debate on the bill could move to an “in camera” session – held in private – to address the opposition’s concerns. Mr. McLean and Mr. Connolly rejected that suggestion, saying discussion on the bill should remain public.
The members also alleged Monday that private investigators have been hired to follow them, either for intimidation purposes or to dig up dirt on them. They could not name who would have hired these investigators or what their exact motivations might be.