New gov’t to inherit lawyers bill woes

Premier drops bill at 11th hour

Education Minister Tara Rivers objects to Wednesday's emergency meeting of the Cayman Islands Legislative Assembly due to non-attendance of government members. - Photo: Brent Fuller

The Cayman Islands government has, once again, dropped plans to rewrite the law governing legal practitioners in the territory after repeated attempts to negotiate a compromise failed.

Monday’s withdrawal of the Legal Practitioners Bill marks at least the sixth time lawmakers have tried in the past 15 years to update the 1969 law that regulates the operations of law firms and the rules of conduct for lawyers in Cayman.

The Cayman Islands Law Society, one of two major representative groups for local attorneys, expressed its “disappointment” in government’s failure to pass the bill.

“Remaining with the status quo will continue to have a negative impact on current and future generations of Caymanian lawyers,” the society statement noted. “The bill would have been an important positive step forward for the Cayman Islands’ legal profession including Caymanians within the profession, the financial services industry as a whole, and the wider community.”

Premier Alden McLaughlin announced late Monday afternoon that his Progressives-led government was abandoning efforts to pass the latest version of the controversial bill, effectively killing it for the Legislative Assembly term which ended Tuesday.

The bill’s passage is considered a crucial step toward protecting Cayman’s financial services industry from external competitors with no connection to the islands who profit from the use of local financial services regimes without being licensed to practice law here.

It is also viewed as required legislation ahead of a territorial evaluation of money laundering and terrorism financing safeguards in September.

Mr. McLaughlin said the government elected in the May 24 general election would be left to deal with the bill, hopefully before the September evaluation by the Caribbean Financial Action Task Force.

“I am painfully aware … that following the elections the government will be under considerably more time pressure to pass legislation governing legal practitioners,” Mr. McLaughlin said, adding that the “substantial body of work” done on the bill would hopefully help the new administration.

The immediate formation of a cohesive government after May 24 is not a given because of a large number of independent candidates seeking election. It is likely a coalition government will have to be formed following the vote, something that can take significant time to establish.

Mr. McLaughlin said he had hoped to build consensus among all members of the Legislative Assembly to support the bill, and thought that had been achieved after a private meeting of the assembly on March 16.

“Things being as they are,” he said, “I have to say … unfortunately, we have not yet been able to agree on the details of those amendments. Given the seminal importance of this legislation … this government would prefer to pass a bill with the overwhelming support of this honorable House.”

Opposition members of the assembly did vote to support the second reading of the legislation last week, but it was apparent later in the week that an agreement in principle  evaporated once lawmakers saw the specifics. “The devil, as they say, is in the detail,” Mr. McLaughlin quipped.

Opponents of the legislation, which included a number of local lawyers who wrote letters to the government and assembly members complaining of discrimination in hiring and promotion at local law firms, said the current version of the bill merely cemented the “status quo” that had prevented Caymanian attorneys from advancing in the profession.

However, Mr. McLaughlin noted that the difficulties experienced by Caymanian lawyers have occurred under the current Legal Practitioners Law, not the draft bill government was attempting to pass.

“I cannot comprehend how retaining the status quo helps Caymanian lawyers,” he said.

Opposition Leader McKeeva Bush and independent opposition MLAs agreed that dropping the bill was probably the only option government had at this stage. Mr. Bush had often advised against rushing into legislation that assembly members did not understand.

“We have to be careful what we do,” Mr. Bush said. “We have to look out for business, we cannot throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

Mr. McLaughlin said that had been the experience of other Caribbean jurisdictions which had passed ill-advised laws that had unintended consequences to their financial services interests or other businesses.

Independent opposition members, who had railed the loudest against the updated version of the bill, did not celebrate its withdrawal Monday night. Several MLAs said they understood how important the legislation was to Cayman’s financial services industry and to the proper operation of the territory’s most lucrative business sector.

“The one opinion that matters that didn’t seem to be relevant until October of last year, was that of Caymanian lawyers,” George Town MLA Winston Connolly said. “This bill was flawed.”

Bodden Town MLA Alva Suckoo said past “mistakes” in failing to promote Caymanians to ownership positions in local law firms needed to be addressed in any draft of the lawyers bill a future government might approve.

“It must be done. Those of us that get the opportunity to do it, let’s do it right,” Mr. Suckoo said.

Investigation urged

Mr. Connolly formally requested Cayman Islands Governor Helen Kilpatrick to convene a commission of inquiry into various allegations of law-breaking that dominated the latter stages of the Legal Practitioners Bill debate.

During the debate, opposition Legislative Assembly members quoted from a number of documents written by Caymanian attorneys, dating back to a January 2013 presentation to the Grand Court opening by Law Reform Commission Chairman Ian Paget-Brown.

“The evidence shows that Caymanians are deliberately being marginalized in the workplace, denied fair opportunities to advance, have been instructed on occasions about how to vote at Caymanian Bar Association elections, told that to be a ‘team player’ they must allow the status quo to continue uninterrupted, and used as pawns to secure status grants and permanent residence and once the Caymanian has outlived his or her usefulness in securing those grants they are unfairly or constructively dismissed,” Mr. Paget-Brown’s 2013 statement read.

Mr. Paget-Brown made further allegations that some firms had “misled” the Trade and Business Licensing Board and potentially misled immigration authorities about the experience of their job applicants and in the filing of job advertisements. Mr. Connolly noted during his debate on the Legal Practitioners Bill that no one had publicly disputed those claims, and that “nothing happened” after the claims were made.

These issues of conflict could only be determined by an “independent body,” Mr. Connolly said Monday. He said the commission, if formed, could help determine whether any government officials violated the terms of the Immigration Law and the Legal Practitioners Law, or if they had conspired with others to do so.

No response to Mr. Connolly’s request had been made by the governor’s office as of press time Tuesday.

The law society has responded to Mr. Connolly’s allegations previously and did so again Monday in the same vein: “The society reiterates that it strongly objects to allegations that actions by local law firms in hiring attorneys overseas could amount to a breach of Cayman Islands laws and notes that Attorney General Samuel Bulgin has previously refuted such claims in the Legislative Assembly.”

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