Legal aid remains unresolved

| 06/08/2010

(CNS): How defendants will be paying their attorneys in some of the country’s major criminal trials over the next few months is still unresolved. The Cayman Islands Grand Court is set to hear a number of high profile murder, attempted murder and firearms related cases this year where the defendants will need legal aid. But the issue of how the country will be funding this expense has not been made clear by government. Despite repeated requests by CNS, including an official Freedom of Information request which was refused, the most recent report on how legal aid should be managed remains under wraps.

The question of whether the courts or a specialist legal aid office under the premier’s ministry will be managing the system has not been answered. However, the budget documents for 2009/10 reveal that the funds have already been placed under the premier’s remit.
Last year McKeeva Bush announced in a late sitting of Finance Committee that he intended to establish a legal aid office, independent of the courts, which would be managed by local lawyers Theresa Pitcairn and Steve McField. The $1.8 million allocation was taken from judicial services and redistributed to the premier’s ministry. However, concerns raised by the chief justice and the wider legal fraternity saw the former governor, Stuart Jack, intervene and ask the government to examine the subject more closely before going ahead with the change.
As a result a government committee was formed which included Steve McField, Elio Solomon, two court representatives and Cheryl Neblett, as chair. The findings of that committee were recorded in a report which was handed to Cabinet at the beginning of March, the contents of which appear to be a closely guarded secret.
During the latest budget process for the 2010/11 fiscal year, government again moved the annual legal aid allocation of around $1.85 million to the premier’s ministry but there was no indication ofhow the money would be allocated and by whom.  
Last week sources told CNS that the government has now made a decision to open a legal aid office which will be managed by Steve McField and will fall under the Ministry of Finance. However, CNS was unable to confirm the speculation that Cabinet has made a decision on the issue.
When Bush first announced his intention to change the way legal aid is administered in the hope of reducing the money spent by government on criminal defence, the opposition raised concerns about this type of funding being in the hands of politicians. PPM George Town member, Alden McLaughlin, pointed out to Finance Committee in October last year that the appearance that the premier would be deciding who gets what was “very worrying”.
The subject was raised in the Legislative Assembly again more recently when the members debated the anonymity bill, which provides for witnesses to remain anonymous during trials for those accused of serious or gang related offences.
McLaughlin, who is a qualified lawyer, pointed out that, with the introduction of the new powers for the police to present anonymous evidence, it was even more important that anyone accused of a serious offence was adequately represented. This meant that government had to ensure legal aid was properly funded. He said that without adequate representation, people could be convicted on anonymous evidence which was not tested, making those convictions unsafe.   
This elicited an angry response from Bush who said he was not going to mollycoddle criminals because of human rights. He suggested the free representation of criminals was causing the rising crime problem and made it very clear that he resented government paying to represent those “who shot up children and burned women”.
The premier has made it clear publicly on a number of occasion that he does not believe that public money should go toward defending criminals and has given little credence to the principle that a defendant is innocent until proven guilty.
“Government has to find the money for legal aid and when there is no money what do we do– close the schools, stop the money for veterans?” he asked. “When you go to court you have to have someone talk for you, yes, but you should not go to court in the first place. You should not shoot people or burn people up.”
He said that by voting millions of dollars for legal aid to help them, the politicians had encouraged criminals.
The allocation of legal aid has been a contentious subject for politicians for years despite the fact that the rate for legal aid represetation is only $135 per hour considerably lower than the normal going rate for legal representation.
However, a report conducted by the law reform commission in 2008 found that the system in Cayman administered by the courts provided value for money and would be cheaper than a legal aid office. An audit by Dan Duguay the former auditor general, earlier this year confirmed that finding and while he said there were some record keeping issues at the court house it was evident that the money allocated for legal aid went directly to those in need of representation and not on administrative or other sundry costs.
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  1. Anonymous says:

    $135 per hour? I give my time to a service group for free because it is the right thing to do; I give back to the society that has allowed me to prosper.

    Maybe some of the lawyers should take the hint.

    • Pauly Cicero says:

      You may be confusing legal aid with pro bono. Volunteering your time is great but the key word is volunteer. I’m sure when you go to work you expect to be paid. Legal aid attorneys provide services for pay.

  2. Beachboi says:

    McKeeva Bush is XXXX.  Lets see if the idea of denying legal aid to criminals stops crime?  What an idiotic idea!  Why not give the criminls bail until they can raise money for their defense?  He couldnt come up with a solution to a problem unless it was given to him.  Why not take back some of the money that you gave to Cayman Airways and Boatswain’s Beach and use that.  You should then split the rest between the school  projects and get the hospital some new equipment.


  3. Anonymous says:

    You’ve forgotten.  The Premier has already explained that if charged, you must be guilty.  Thus, there is no need for legal aid and that 1.85 million can be used for more urgent Ministerial expenses.

    • Pit Bull says:

      and "nation building".  Don’t forget the $2m for nation building.

  4. Sir Caustic says:

    Have Steve and Theresa found jobs yet?  If so the need for the new legal aid body might have gone.

    • Anonymous says:

      Steve calls the talk show on a daily basis but I don’t think it is a job, maybe staying in the public ear until the next election…

  5. Anonymous says:

    Oh my God, help us!  We the innocent suffer for the guilty!  Criminals as such getting legal aid from a broke governmetn while the reset of us poor people pay for CUC to maintain their transformers?

    From now on I’ll remain speechless…

  6. Anonymous says:

    At present a person applies for legal aid before a judge, and if refused – has to appeal to that judge – does that sound right? this ‘judge, jury and execution’ approach to legal aid would be addressed if an independent structure administered the issuance of legal aid (of course the applicant for legal aid could then apply to an impartial judge if he or she were denied).



    • Anonymous says:

      A person does not apply to a judge for legal aid. Instead there’s a lady at the court’s office that’s responsible for legal aid and one has to provide information to her including financial details etc.

      Please let’s get the facts correct.

      • Anon says:

        Mrs King adminsters the scheme but ONLY the Chief Justice decides whether to grant, extend or vary legal aid.  Incidentally everyone keeps talking about criminals – legal aid also covers representation in a small number of civil cases for divorce, ancillary relief (money side of divorce) and some other civil litigation too.  The amount to criminal cases is only a proportion of the money expended. 

        The mark of a civilised country is the upholding of Article 6 of the Convention on Human Rights which includes the right to free legal assistance if you cannot afford to pay.  All persons are entitled to due process – otherwise this place will become Zimbabwe or other places where the rule of law is no longer in force.