CJ issues legal aid warning

| 17/01/2013

(CNS): The issues that have taken centre stage for the local judiciary over the last four years remained front and centre as the courts started the judicial year on Wednesday at the Grand Court opening. Giving his customary report on the past year and the hopes for the year ahead, Anthony Smellie, the Chief Justice, highlighted once again the issue of legal aid in the face of a proposed bill with which he has fundamental concerns. He pointed out that while the current system needed some reform it provided value for money, was not escalating in cost and ensured all those facing serious criminal charges had funding for a lawyer.

Smellie said that the draft Legal Aid and Pro Bono Legal Services Bill 2012, which was circulated last year for public comment, could be counterproductive as it may drive the already select few lawyers doing legal aid work away, creating a far greater problem at a time when the bill of rights now enshrines the right to representation. He warned that the bill of rights obligated government to fund qualified lawyers for those charged with serious criminal offences and who could not afford to pay for representation.

The bill, which was circulated last year, compels all lawyers to provide their services pro bono for 25 hours per year or make an annual contribution to the court of $2,500. With just a handful of lawyers in Cayman willing and qualified to do criminal defence legal aid work, the Chief Justice said forcing people to work pro bono could drive them away and be counterproductive. Obligating lawyers without experience in criminal defence work could also harm those people who need defending the most.

Legal aid has become something of a political football since the last elelction but its costs throughout the last four years have remained stable. The chief justice said that the perception of escalating costs was unfounded with the appropriation remaining around $1.8 million every year, despite the massive increase in legal cases. Last year 557 defendents in the criminal courts were funded via legal aid and represented by the handful of local lawyers willing to undertake the work.

The bill has now been sent to the Law Reform Commission, which had previousluy undertaken a report about legal aid, in which it concluded that the current system, that is managed directly by the courts, represented good value for money though required some reforms.

Smellie urged legislators to settle the matter of legal aid once and for all but he warned that the more elaborate the legislation, the more unwieldy and expensive things would become.

With government resources limited, the chief justice raised the issue of the long shelved plans for a new court house, but he said its delay was now presenting a very real problem. In a new constitutional era with enshrined human rights, delays in justice could present legal problems for government and the tax payer. He said the judicial system was in desperate need of a new court house. 

He pointed out that there are only two secure courtrooms and most of the time judges and magistrates in the criminal courts are pressed to find a courtroom to sit in, given the escalating number of criminal cases in which defendants are often in custody.
Smellie said the courts needed to be running at least three trials a week in the Grand court alone if they were to dispose of the caseload within a reasonable time frame. At present the average is still 300 days from charge to trial, much longer than the international standard of 180.

The current courthouse was built some 40 years ago and the chief justice pointed to the pressing need for a modern facility to accommodate the needs of the various specialist courts as well as the criminal trials. He said it was very important that progress was made on the development of the new court this year.

Category: Local News

Comments (15)

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  1. Rorschach says:

    I think the CJ needs to talk more about the lack of working hours that judges and Magistrates keep…Court STARTS at 10AM..kicks out about 12-12:30 and then picks back up around 2 or 2:30 and kicks out again at 4..THAT is where the slowdown is..start court at 8AM, take ONE HOUR for lunch, like the rest of the real world and work til 5PM..you would be amazed at how much MORE work would actually get done..THEN you can talk about getting a nice new court building and more staff..and speaking of staff..go to the clerk counter sometime..you see one or two girls working and the rest standing around and chatting about what club they went to the night before or where they going tonight or who they going to see..yada yada yada..less talk, more work.

    • Anonymous says:

      Amen to that. If court is not starting at 8:00 or 9;00 and in session at least 7.5 hours, one is not effectively using the space available. Not to mention wasting the jurors' and the publics' time.

    • Rule Monke says:

      Obviously never worked in the legal system.  Judges need to read papers.  Judges need to make orders and review other matters too.  They work very long hours.  Also advocates need to make arrangements before, during and after the Court day which affect the hearings.  There is a reason that the Court day is the length it is.  And last of all, if you have been on your feet from 10am-1pm and 2.15pm-4.30pm you will know it is bloody hard work as it is.

      • Rorschach says:

        Oooohhh…sounds like I threw a stone in the pen and hit something…I love it when people like YOU make such ridiculous comments like, "Obviously never worked in the legal system", when all that's obvious is that you know NOTHING about my experience..I HAVE worked in the legal system..and I KNOW judges do a lot of reading and all sorts of other legal requirements as well.  However, that still doesn't offset the fact that the legal players in the judicial arena do not utilise nealy enough of the time available to them.  If they did, they would get through cases a lot quicker and have less of a backlog and that's a fact.   And where does ANYONE in court stand nonstop the times you state?  Judges sit, clerks sit, marshalls sit, lawyers sit, witness sit, accused persons sit. WHO stands nonstop?  NO ONE…So don't make excuses..

  2. Anonymous says:

    Blah blah…

    Perhaps he should also say how much PENSION & SALARY the imported udges are paid and the percentage of contributionss – as compared to the poor hard-working civil servants!!

    • Anonymous says:

      11:02, ALL the judges, imported or otherwise, are paid an enormous salary which by law gets increased EVERY year according to the cost of living increase. Government can choose not to pay civil servants but they HAVE to pay the judges the increase. Their pension is 80%, repeat 80%, of their final salary. They do not contribute to that pension from their take home pay, which is EXACTLY the same as civil servants (who of course do not get anything like 80% of their final salary).

  3. Anynomous says:

    I think Legal aid should only be granted to persons who find themselves in a poor position and has always been there for atleast 10 years.   Legal aid should not be given to persons who are drug dealers, murderers and rapaist as such,   They made money doing what ever they did, let them use it.

    • Anonymous says:

      You miss the whole point of legal aid. Until they are convicted they are none of the things you listed.  Its a fair trial in a court of law that determines they guilt or innocents.   All people are entitled to that fair trial and it can only be had with proper legal representation.  To deny this right to another may come back to bite you if you should be falsely accused and find your self in a position of not being able to afford representation.

      • Anon.....(and on and on) says:

        Could not agree more.  Look at Mr Bush and his supporters who are very vocal on the "Inocent until proven guilty" mantra.  He even has his Chief Hand Maiden Elio holding out the begging bowl, for "he is not a rich man".  Can't be the same Mr Bush whose widely published views on Legal Aid in 2009 were along the lines of "The country should not be paying to defend criminals".  I can only assume that he has seen the light?

      • Anonymous says:

        The legal aid would not be so expensive if the cases were moved along and dealt with in 6 months. It is inevitable that a case that lingers will cost more. The judges need to examine their scheduling  practices and see whether they can improve. They are in control of their dockets, not us civilians.

        • Anonymous says:

          Wrong – ultimately 'you civilians' are in control – you have the purse strings.  As long as you keep on voting in morons who are not prepared to fund the system the problems will continue. 

          If you could see beyond voting for the bloke who's going to give you a new fridge and look for a representative with integrity that would be a tremendous help.

      • Anonymous says:

        However, the ill gotten gains of thieves and drug dealers could be used as collateral or sold.

    • Anonymous says:

      amen brother……… legal aid is LEGAL AID…… LEGAL AID is not using government money (the peoples money) to fund the "right to representation" of hudlums in their defence of  governments attempt to responsibily prosecute them for their hedious deeds which is Government's civil responsibility to "the people "………

      • Anon.....(and on and on) says:

        Let's have a public meeting to push the benefits of "Guilty until proven inocent", or even "Guilty unless able to fund a competent legal defence".  Day that happens is the day we should all take advantage of out right to British / EU Nationality and ask the expats to make sure the door dosen't hit us all on our collective backside.

        Yes, legal aid is costly.  Yes, many who receive legal aid turn out to be criminals (but only after a fair trial).  So what is the alternative?  Only the "innocent" get legal aid?  Be interested to see how that selection process would work…..

        If an innocent person is standing in the dock, then the system has failed to some extent, or "reasonable doubt" exists.  Please do not let us all compound those errors,  few though they may be, or assume that being accused equates to being guilty.