“When you have the votes, vote. When you don’t have the votes, talk.”
That’s a political axiom which applies neatly to the situation facing Cayman Islands legislators in relation to the Legal Practitioners Bill.
On paper at least, the Progressives government should have “the votes” (i.e. the majority needed to pass a piece of legislation) for every bill that’s brought to the floor of the House, particularly on something as important as a new regulatory framework for Cayman’s legal sector. At this point, however, it’s not clear whether the government is unified on this matter or not.
Somehow the Progressives have allowed themselves to be backed into a corner, with 200-odd amendments to consider during a highly compressed time frame, before the “final version” of the bill is to be voted on, once and for all.
We understand the need for and we support some key parts of the bill, but we also have serious reservations about the bill, specifically the protectionist provisions for Caymanian attorneys. While the major law firms seem to have accepted those sections in exchange for the parts of the bill concerning local standards for the profession and the regulation of the practice of Cayman law overseas, we are extremely skeptical and critical of “affirmative action” measures in any industry and are wary of such provisions (if they are included in the final Legal Practitioners Law) creeping into other business sectors, sooner or later.
We’ll stop there with our opinions on the bill for the simple reason that the document legislators will vote on for its second reading is likely not going to resemble the bill that emerges from the “committee stage” (remember the 200 amendments) and is eventually put up for the all-important third and final vote.
In fact, similar to the rushed passage of the 2013 National Conservation Law (which also underwent dramatic renovation in the committee stage before the third reading), we suspect nobody – not even lawmakers – will know for sure what they’re voting on until long after they take the vote. In the case of the National Conservation Law, the final version of the legislation was not made available to the public until nearly two months after the Legislative Assembly approved it, and weeks after the governor signed it.
The Progressives’ management (or mismanagement) of the legislative process is rather remarkable, considering this particular draft of the Legal Practitioners Bill has been discussed for many months, and the concept of the bill has been simmering for many years.
The current parliamentary procedure on the bill has been hijacked somewhat through hijinks from independent members of the opposition and the bizarre (and unsubstantiated) claims that law firms had hired private investigators to have those MLAs followed.
During Monday’s debate, a rare moment of clarity on this topic was thankfully provided by Minister Tara Rivers, who devoted a large amount of her time to reading an insightful and compelling letter from a Caymanian who works in the legal industry.
The writer, an employee at Maples law firm, said the legislative debate thus far had been one-sided, and that lawmakers seem not to acknowledge that the vast majority of the jobs generated by Cayman’s legal sector aren’t for attorneys, but for legal support staff. The writer said she’s not a lawyer herself, but has a great job in legal support for a good employer in Maples. For perspective, the writer said Maples has about 100 attorneys and 400 support staff – 300 of whom are Caymanian.
Lawmakers who attempt to portray the law firms as big, bad actors risk having those firms move business – and support jobs now occupied by Caymanians – away from Cayman. The letter writer asked, who is speaking for people like her?
Well, Minister Rivers assumed that role, and to great effect. We consider her performance Monday to be a shining moment of her four years in office.
During debate on this and future bills, Minister Rivers’ colleagues would do well to follow her example and use their precious time in the Legislative Assembly to offer valuable perspective, to provide cogent arguments and, above all, to legislate in the best interests of their constituents – and for all who live and work in these islands.