A bill regulating the operation of Cayman Islands law firms and lawyers was approved unanimously Friday afternoon following an acrimonious week of debate.

However, the current version of the Legal Practitioners Bill will face wholesale changes in the legislative committee that will review it before a third and final vote on the measure later this week.

Financial Services Minister Wayne Panton said Friday that one of the proposed changes seeks to guarantee majority Caymanian ownership of all local firms.

“Over the next 15 years, we want to see the majority of Caymanians being engaged as owners, controllers of Cayman Islands law firms,” Mr. Panton said. “That is a very significant step and one that we don’t take lightly.”

The specific wording of the amended bill is still being worked out and the legislative committee likely will not see the changes until the middle of next week. Mr. Panton said the Caymanian ownership requirement would likely be similar to the Local Companies (Control) License regime, that requires 60 percent Caymanian ownership of any locally operating company.

The other “big picture” amendments Minister Panton reviewed Friday included a change in the membership of the Cayman Islands Legal Practitioners Association council, which will effectively oversee local firms. The eight-person council, according to the proposed amendments, will be 100 percent Caymanian and Cabinet will have some selection power over the otherwise self-regulating body.

Membership fees paid to belong to that association would be increased, Mr. Panton said, to provide additional funds for the professional development of Caymanian lawyers.

Current requirements in the bill, that non-Caymanian lawyers must have at least four years post-qualification experience as an attorney before being considered for employment by a local firm will be left in the bill, Mr. Panton said.

The changes to the bill were agreed in principle between the Progressives-led government and the opposition members after an eight-hour private meeting of the Legislative Assembly Thursday. The meeting was held behind closed doors and was brokered by the assembly’s elder statesmen – George Town MLA Kurt Tibbetts, Bodden Town MLA Anthony Eden and Opposition Leader, West Bay MLA McKeeva Bush.

Mr. Tibbetts said Friday that the agreement in principle on the amendments – which secure the unanimous vote on the second reading of the lawyers’ bill – had “restored his faith” in the current members of the Legislative Assembly.

Some opposition members, including Mr. Bush and East End MLA Arden McLean, said their “yes” votes on the second reading of the bill Friday were contingent upon agreement to the amendments that were eventually passed.

Minister Panton, a former managing partner at Walkers law firm, took a political beating during the debate on the bill over the past week, while urging lawmakers to remember the importance of the local financial services industry to Cayman’s economy. The legal practice, as much as any other industry, he said, was tied to the overall success of that business.

“[A modern Legal Practitioners Bill] is essential to the jurisdiction, it is essential to our financial services industry,” he said.

At the same time, Caymanian lawmakers must seek to guard against the types of discrimination they’d seen reported to the House in the past two weeks, practices that were blamed for keeping local attorneys our of lucrative partnership positions.

“These are very vexing and frustrating concerns, [discrimination] should not be allowed,” he said.

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