Bush dismisses under funding of legal aid
CNS): With an increase in cases covered by legal aid, the constant under-funding of the programme has led to the courts having to cover the shortfall from the following year’s budget, presenting the judicial administration with a mounting financial problem. The court administrator, Kevin McCormack, told Finance Committee on Friday evening that the cost of supplying legal aid was consistently around $1.8 million but the budget allocation for this year was still some $200,000 below the money required, even though the appropriation for 2012/13 was higher than the $1.2 million the courts received for legal aid in 2011/12.
“The dilemma for the judicial administration is that we have had to pay some bills that arise from last year out of the money provide for this and clearly that is an unsatisfactory state of affairs,” McCormack told the members of the committee in response to questions about the allocation. The court administrator pointed out that the serious criminal cases before the court were increasing but the budget was not.
However, the premier, in his capacity as chair of Finance Committee, said that everyone had to face cuts. “I am sure all of us recognise that there are cuts,” McKeeva Bush told McCormack. “In fact your salary is less this year than it was last. I think all of us understand what happened.”
In the first six month of this year there were already 70 indictments filed in the courts which, compared to 109 in 2010 and 118 in 2011, suggests that the court may even struggle to keep the legal aid bill within the average $1.8 million, never mind the $1.6 million it has actually received.
McCormack explained the current legal aid system and the application process to the committee which, he said, were rather “sketchy” and did not give the courts the power to closely examine the claims made by people applying for legal aid and their ability to contribute to their representation. However, he said, the courts do make an effort to try and establish the accuracy of the information supplied by the applicant.
The legal aid issue continues to be a particularly controversial one because of the lack of public support for a publicly funded defence for those charged with serious crime. However, those facing the most serious criminal charges, such as murder, robbery and other violent offences, are often the least likely to be able to afford a lawyer and cannot be tried without one.
Over the last few years efforts have been made to try and cut the funding rather than increase it and the premier, who has made clear on a number of occasions his opposition to legal aid being given to those who are facing serious criminal charges, had attempted to remove the control of legal aid funding from the chief justice and the courts and sought to place the funding in his own ministry as he examined the idea of establishing an independent legal aid clinic.
However, under pressure from the previous governor and following various reports, the budget was returned to the courts.
There are no more than a dozen local criminal attorneys that do regular legal aid work. Compared to the usual rates for lawyers in Cayman, the legal aid rate at $135 per hour is not particularly attractive. That rate, however, is paid to all criminal defence attorneys representing defendants on legal aid, including the QCs drafted in from the UK or around the region for the more serious criminal trials.
The latest effort to address the lack of funding for legal aid has also met with considerable controversy. The draft Legal Aid and Pro Bono Legal Services Bill 2012, which was circulated by the authorities in May, proposes to make it mandatory for all lawyers practicing in the Cayman Islands to undertake 25 hours per year of pro-bono services or pay an additional annual fee of $2,500.
Members of the Criminal Defence Bar Association (CDBA) described the proposal as an unjustified attack on lawyers doing legal aid work and warned that having unqualified and uninsured lawyers from across the legal profession doing pro bono work representing people charged with crimes could present significant human rights problems.
Bill attacks criminal lawyers (June 2012)
Lawyers to work free (May 2012)
Jack stops Mac legal aid plan (December 2009)
Mac changes legal aid policy (October 2009)
Mac defends legal aid cut (October 2009)
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