Lawyers bill compromise flops; debate continues

A Cayman Islands government minister signaled Tuesday that some changes to a controversial proposal seeking to further regulate the practice of law in the islands would have to be made before the bill is approved.

Efforts to bring about wholesale legislative compromise on the much-debated Legal Practitioners Bill failed Monday, when opposition party members declined to attend a private legislative meeting set by Premier Alden McLaughlin.

The Progressives-led government members did not comment on what occurred at Monday’s meeting and simply resumed debate Tuesday, with Finance Minister Marco Archer giving some insight on where the ruling government might be going with changes to the legislation.

If a second reading of the bill is approved by lawmakers, they will then adjourn to committee to review nearly 200 proposed amendments – about 130 of them filed by opposition MLAs.

Opposition Leader McKeeva Bush called the looming effort to rewrite the controversial bill in legislative committee “madness.”

Members of the independent opposition said they were releasing a statement concerning the Monday legislative meeting, but it had not been received by press time.

Minister Archer disagreed with Mr. Bush during his Legislative Assembly debate Tuesday, stating that a compromise version of the bill is necessary. “First, to protect our financial services industry, but also to protect our Caymanian attorneys,” Mr. Archer said. “These are not mutually exclusive outcomes and we should not let anyone tell us that it is.

“Finding a happy balance is possible. It may not be easy to do, but find it we must.”

Mr. Archer said one crucial issue concerns who controls the Cayman Islands Legal Practitioners Association. Under the current proposal, that new body created by the bill would be led by an eight-person council of which five members must be Caymanian.

The minister said the council, which would effectively regulate most law firm operations in Cayman, should be made up of eight Caymanians.

“Some of those Caymanians are Caymanian by status,” Mr. Archer said. “It should be adequate to ensure that the views of the council … are not one-sided.”

Another key issue that government must resolve is the matter of how many foreign attorneys are practicing Cayman Islands law in overseas offices, Mr. Archer said.

The current bill seeks to balance the number of lawyers overseas with the number of attorneys and articled clerks working at the Cayman Islands law office in what effectively amounts to a one-to-one ratio.

Mr. Archer said he tends to side with those who said the practice of lawyers using Cayman law overseas had been going on so long that it could not be stopped, especially since Cayman’s competitors in the financial services industry have since followed suit with their own legal regimes.

“The results would be adverse to the health and strength of the financial services industry and our economy generally if we stop now,” the minister said.

However, Mr. Archer said the bill must ensure that no “abuses” occur with the system. For instance, if local law firms hire a number of articled law clerks just to “make up the numbers” in order to justify a larger number of overseas attorneys, and never intend to promote those clerks within their firms.

Some 200 attorneys are believed to be practicing Cayman Islands law overseas. Mr. Archer suggested that there should be some method by which they sit an exam in order to continue the practice. He suggested that the exam should be administered at the Cayman Islands law school.

“There’s nothing unreasonable about that” he said. “That is precisely how it works elsewhere and Cayman should be no different … if we have any hope of preserving the reputation of these islands.”

Mr. Archer said he would support the bill when it finally comes to the House for a vote. Also, government backbencher Joey Hew indicated he would do the same, noting that historical difficulties with Caymanians being promoted and respected within the legal field did not stem from the current draft of the Legal Practitioners Bill.

“This bill didn’t create the issue, but again [the government has] fallen victim to taking on the difficult issues,” Mr. Hew said.

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