Government will drop the date and question from the Referendum Bill in an effort to head off potential legal action, Attorney General Samuel Bulgin said Tuesday night.
Instead those elements will be determined by Cabinet in regulations accompanying the law.
It seems likely that the plan for a Dec. 19 date and the wording of the question won’t change. But Premier Alden McLaughlin has yet to speak on the planned amendments, which were revealed by Attorney General Bulgin as the debate went late into the night on Tuesday.
McLaughlin will address the house Wednesday morning before legislators vote on the bill and the proposed amendments.
Bulgin spoke at length on the legal issues highlighted by lawyers acting for campaign group CPR Cayman.
The group, which triggered the referendum with a petition of more than 5,000 signatures, published a legal opinion from UK law firm Matrix Chambers Saturday suggesting that the proposed referendum procedure was “unlawful”.
The opinion accompanied by a letter to government from local law firm Broadhurst suggested legal action could follow if amendments were not made.
Bulgin appeared to accept there was merit to at least some of the concerns raised in the legal opinion. He acknowledged that the “process issue” of setting the question within the general legislation rather than as a separate exercise could be an arguable point, based on the wording of the constitution.
He said, “Out of an abundance caution the safest way to do it is to ensure that where possible we remove the doubts surrounding this issue and thereby avoid any issue of trying to go to the court to see whether this should be tested one way or another.”
He added, “There will be a committee stage amendment to remove the question from the draft bill and if the bill is enacted into law then the Cabinet will settle the question and put it in regulations and confirm the proposed date.”
He suggested court action would be expensive and unnecessary for both sides and suggested the argument was a technical point. The wording of the Constitution states that Cabinet must set the question and date “in a manner prescribed by law”.
Bulgin indicated the proposed amendment should deal with any uncertainty about whether the bill was in line with the Constitution.
He added, “That should remove any issue about whether the two exercises should be coupled and would address any concerns about the sequence of things.”
He also indicated another committee stage amendment will be brought to ensure dead people can be removed from the electors list.
He did not appear to be concerned about other issues raised by the law firm about the bill.
On the issue of campaign finance, he said there were “obvious problems” with legislating and enforcing this in a short space of time in a poll where, unlike in a general election, it was not clear who the key players are. He said there was no legal requirement for this to be part of the referendum process but accepted it should be part of a more general referendum law.
The Attorney General was speaking towards the end of a second long day of debate during which politicians on all sides gave their verdict on the Referendum Bill and on the port project in general.
The debate went largely along political lines, with government members backing the bill and the port project in general and opposition members speaking against.
One late exception to that rule was independent West Bay legislator Bernie Bush who suggested he was not for the port and switched sides, departing the government bench. He did not indicate how he would vote on the bill, but also spoke out against government spending on campaigning for the project.