(CNS): The four independent MLAs who believe that local legal firms could be breaking the law by offering Cayman legal advice and services outside the jurisdiction through unlicensed attorneys said Monday that the professionals in the sector are not above the law, as they stood by their call for an investigation. They said comments by Cayman Finance implying that the MLAs were the problem rather than the conduct of the law firms were “deeply disconcerting”.
In a statement to the press about the controversies surrounding the Legal Practitioners Bill and what they see as the authorities turning a blind eye to past wrongdoing by law firms, East End MLA Arden McLean said the industry body was trying to interfere with the “supremacy of parliament” by trying to stop the legitimate private member’s motion.
He accused them of making “inaccurate and deliberately self-serving” comments about the motion, its alleged threat to the financial services sector and the part the legal profession plays in it by suggesting that the politicians were at fault rather than the law firms and lawyers.
“To suggest the motion is improper in any way and that the airing of the motion but not the alleged activities of the firms is what is a threat to the integrity of the financial services is wholly refuted,” McLean said on behalf of himself and his opposition independent colleagues, Winston Connolly, Alva Suckoo and Ezzard Miller.
“Surely Cayman Finance is not suggesting that such serious allegations should not be thoroughly investigated and the law firms and their partners should be above investigation of criminal allegations while the average Caymanian is not,” he asked rhetorically.
The four independent politicians made it clear that they are not likely to drop the issue anytime soon, and said that “money, power or international embarrassment” should not come before the rule of law.
The four MLAs believe that the current legislation is clear on the matter. However, the government and the offshore sector believe the law is clear that only attorneys practicing Cayman law within the jurisdiction require a licence; they are not restricted from practicing Cayman law overseas without a licence and doing so is not an offence and liable to conviction.
The issue appears to be one of interpretation, and although the four MLAs believe they are right and the legal profession has been breaching the law for many years, they said the investigation would address the alleged ambiguity.
The MLAs also said that there are two aspects to their concerns about this law: one is that government is about to pass a bad piece of legislation that would sanction previous wrongdoing over practicing Cayman law, the other is that the new Legal Practitioners Bill is still not balanced enough to protect Caymanians.
Winston Connolly, a former lawyer who worked with two of the largest offshore firms, said that he saw and reported bad practice when he was in the profession and saw the way local lawyers are treated. Indicating that only one Caymanian has made equity partner in the last 18 years, Connolly suggested that either the law school, which he claimed has been lauded as “ivy league standard”, is getting things “terribly wrong” or the law firms are discriminating against local lawyers and the draft legislation will not help that.
Others, however, have argued that the bill Wayne Panton is hoping to steer through the Legislative Assembly this month after it re-opens Wednesday is a massive improvement on the previous law and will go some way to addressing the inequities and provide a system to licence overseas attorneys to better control and regulate the industry even overseas.
Connolly said he does not object to the principle of licensing attorneys in overseas offices to practice Cayman law but it is important that they are connected to the jurisdiction, that they are properly vetted and that local lawyers get chance to gain the experience overseas as well. The underlying concern is that making it too easy could see a lot more professional legal work, and with it the fees and support jobs, leave the jurisdiction.
During the press briefing McLean revealed that before Cayman Finance released a statement on Friday criticizing him and his parliamentary colleagues, a representative had reached out and offered to mediate between lawyers and the MLAs. But when they asked for confirmation on whose authority the person was acting, what issues they proposed to discuss and for a more formal written request, the organisation did not respond, he said.
The issues, complaints, allegations of discrimination and disagreements over striking the right balance regarding this law and the profession it is intended to regulate has generated disagreement for more than a dozen years.
Since the government has a slim majority, it is likely that the bill will pass and the motion will fail sometime over the next few weeks, but accusations from both sides will undoubtedly continue.