Legal Aid faces overhaul

| 21/12/2008

(CNS): With the wider publication of the Law Reform Commission’s report reviewing Cayman’s legal aid system, the public has until 15 January 2009 to comment on proposed changes to the system which would introduce controversial merits and means testing for applicants. Although the authors say by comparison to other jurisdictions Cayman’s legal aid costs are not unduly high, the goal is to make the system more efficient.

Always unpopular with elected officials as the policy is controversial and rarely a vote winner, a commission was established earlier this year to assess the situation regarding the country’s legal aid system to see if savings could be made. The commission made eight recommendations including the appointment of a legal aid administrator (public defender) whose role would be to help improve the current system’s efficiency.

It also suggests amending legal aid rules to specify who is eligible for legal aid; and recommends both merits and means tests. It further proposed creating a duty counsel service for all types of criminal offences to which legal aid applies. Duty counsel could help reduce costs by providing clients with legal advice about their options. For example, it could assist clients in identifying matters where guilty pleas are to be entered, and then represent them on such pleas as well.

The report shies away from making pro-bono work mandatory for local lawyers but does suggest encouraging and promoting voluntary legal assistance from the private sector as it would be an obvious way or reducing the government’s legal aid overheads

Although legislators have long complained about the high cost of legal aid and the fact that too many of the cases are conducted by overseas lead attorneys, when he tabled the report in September, Attorney General Samuel Bulgin said access to legal aid is an integral aspect of the administration of justice in the Cayman Islands. He added that a modern, transparent system of legal aid enables access to justice to persons in need and enhances the Islands’ image as a sophisticated, democratic and stable jurisdiction. Defending the system, he said that the commission had found the present system of provision of legal aid services in general offers good value for money.

“Though it may not necessarily resulting in reduced costs, the commission’s view is that a more transparent and efficient administration of legal aid could serve to more readily demonstrate that funds are being appropriately spent, thereby satisfying the objective of accountability inherent in the legislators’ concerns,” Bulgin said.

Legal aid is offered according to law to defendants, charged with specified criminal offences such as burglary, rape and murder, who cannot afford lawyers to present their cases in court. It is also provided in civil cases to those unable to bring or defend a legal action for lack of funds.

The report is available on the Legislative Assembly’s website, under House Business and Presentation of Papers and of Reports.

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