In a surprise move Wednesday afternoon, the Cayman Islands Legislative Assembly began debate on the latest draft of the Legal Practitioners Bill.
The bill, which was not expected to be heard until at least next week, was moved up in the order of consideration by the Progressives-led government. Premier Alden McLaughlin cited more than 100 proposed amendments to the legislation that had been filed by opposition members which needed to be considered.
“This is going to take days, if not a week, to deal with,” Premier McLaughlin said. “[There is a] huge amount of public concern … in Cayman, in London … about what is happening in Cayman about the legal profession and the financial services industry in general.
“More important than our individual political position … is the concern about the future of these island and our people. Financial services is 60 percent of our gross domestic product and 40 percent of government revenues. It employs thousands of our people.
“The longer it carries on, the more damage is done,” the premier said.
A number of allegations have been made concerning the legislation in the past two weeks, including accusations repeated on Wednesday that Financial Services Minister Wayne Panton had a direct conflict of interest in presenting the bill to the Legislative Assembly. Mr. Panton, a former managing partner at Walkers law firm, was identified Wednesday as the co-owner/landlord of the building the firm now operates from in George Town.
East End MLA Arden McLean alleged that these “conflicts” should prevent Mr. Panton from speaking or voting on the legislation.
“You want politics, politics it is,” Mr. McLean said after his claims prompted groans and protests from the government benches.
Mr. Panton denied any conflicts in the matter and said he had taken legal advice outside of the Legislative Assembly on these matters. That advice, Mr. Panton said, indicated he had no need to recuse himself or abstain from voting in the debate.
Speaker of the House Juliana O’Connor-Connolly ruled that Mr. Panton appeared to have no direct pecuniary interest related to the Legal Practitioners Bill.
Mr. Panton told the Cayman Compass before the Legislative Assembly meeting convened that the same bill proposed during the assembly’s October 2016 session would be brought back for a vote during the current meeting. Mr. Panton said a number of amendments will be proposed during the committee-stage review of the legislation.
The Legal Practitioners Bill brought to the Legislative Assembly in October was 126 pages.
Mr. Panton said extensive behind-the-scenes consultations have been going on with legal industry stakeholders on the bill, which seeks to modernize the 1969 legislation that governs the practice of law in Cayman. He said many of the changes suggested by stakeholders who participated in the review have been added to the bill.
The crux of the dispute over the bill 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.
Opposition to the legislation among Caymanian attorneys has been building since the latest draft of the bill was made public last year. Legislators received a letter from attorney Sammy Jackson stating concerns about “mounting resistance” to the proposal in October, which stressed what Mr. Jackson said was a lack of transparency in relation to the plan.
The Legal Practitioners Bill seeks to create a new self-regulatory body called the Cayman Islands Legal Practitioners Association, with eight attorneys appointed as members, five of whom must be Caymanian. The association was to be responsible for promotion and training of Caymanian attorneys and ensuring that attorneys are suitably qualified. The bill also seeks to create a separate business staffing plan regime for local law firms.
Legislation governing the practice of law and lawyers’ conduct is considered critical to prepare for the mid-2017 Caribbean Financial Action Task Force review of the Cayman Islands’ protections against money laundering and terrorism financing.