For the second time this week, Cayman Islands lawmakers suspended the public meeting of the Legislative Assembly to commence a private parliamentary session in attempts to “reach consensus” on the Legal Practitioners Bill.
Efforts to compromise in a closed-door meeting Monday afternoon failed when opposition MLAs did not show up for the scheduled talks. East End MLA Arden McLean said Wednesday evening that he felt that meeting was not a genuine attempt at negotiation and that other individuals who were not members of parliament – including the chief justice – had been invited to participate to assist in informing the debate.
The thorny piece of legislation, which has received support from the Progressives-led administration but which has been vehemently rejected by opposition and independent lawmakers, has now been the subject of assembly debate for more than a week.
It seeks to update a 48-year-old law and set ground rules for law firms that practice Cayman Islands law in overseas jurisdictions. The bill also seeks to create a self-governing council of lawyers and sets requirements for the hiring and promotion of Caymanian, locally trained attorneys.
During earlier legislative debates Wednesday, angry words were hurled around the assembly chamber as Premier Alden McLaughlin accused opposition lawmakers of using delay tactics to stall and eventually defeat the bill which they had said will cement the “status quo” – actually reducing opportunities for local attorneys to advance in their careers.
Mr. McLaughlin said the opposition had “declared all out war” on the legislation and that things for local attorneys would never improve if nothing was done to revamp the current legislation, a charge which the opposition members denied.
Meanwhile, opposition MLAs accused the government of acting improperly because it had allowed the Cayman Islands Law Society, a professional lawyers group, to pay some 50,000 pounds to a legal draftsman who wrote the bill for government. A number of opposition members said this was an apparent conflict of interests, since the Law Society had paid to write the bill that would later govern its members.
Financial Services Minister Wayne Panton said during Wednesday’s meeting that Cabinet had reviewed the legislative changes and that government often used outside lawyers to assist in drafting legislation. Mr. Panton insisted nothing improper was done in this instance.
Premier McLaughlin said later in the day that despite being involved in seven political campaigns in Cayman, including the current 2017 political campaign, he had never seen “the viciousness” with which Minister Panton had been personally attacked during the debate over the Legal Practitioners Bill.
Opposition members have accused Mr. Panton of conspiring to assist Cayman’s larger law firms in avoiding the provisions of the local Immigration Law. Those firms, they said, have employed attorneys overseas to work for them who do not have Cayman Islands practicing certificates. Mr. Panton said the opposition’s claims were “an attack on Cayman’s financial services industry.”
Following a dinner break Wednesday that lasted some two hours, the premier sought to strike a more conciliatory tone during his debate Wednesday night.
“All members … really do want to do the right thing by Cayman and Caymanians. How we get there sometimes is a long and winding road,” Mr. McLaughlin said. “Often in this thing called democracy, we tend to employ methods which perhaps are on an objective analysis not necessarily the best way forward.”
The government had planned to debate nearly 200 amendments to the current legislation during the upcoming committee stage review of the bill, a process Opposition Leader McKeeva Bush called “madness.” Mr. Bush said he would not support such an effort at the “11th hour.” The legislature is due to be dissolved ahead of the May general election on March 28.
The private meeting Thursday was an attempt to reach agreement on the major areas covered by those amendments. The assembly meeting is scheduled to resume Friday morning, when debate on the bill will wrap up and amendments will be reviewed in the committee.