Government has moved to avert a possible boycott by this island’s attorneys of its legal aid system, which has been the saving grace for thousands of poor Barbadians who can not afford to pay for a lawyer on their own.
This evening, Attorney General Adriel Brathwaite revealed to Barbados TODAY that he was preparing to take before Parliament an urgent supplementary of one million dollars for payment of outstanding legal aid fees.
The move comes in response to a resolution passed by members of the Barbados Bar Association during their general meeting held at the Supreme Court Building on Whitepark Road, St Michael on Monday.
Upset about the non payment by Government, the attorneys agreed that they would no longer provide free legal services to persons of “insufficient means”.
“[The meeting resolved] that the Barbados Bar Association shall advise its members to no longer accept Legal Aid assignments and certificates until such time as all outstanding payments and disbursements due to the attorneys-at-law listed on the roll of the Community Legal Services Commission have been paid,” section 1A of the resolution states.
The lawyers also agreed to inform the Community Legal Aid Services Commission – a division of the Office of the Attorney General – of the position taken.
Investigations by Barbados TODAY have also revealed the state-run Community Legal Aid Services Commission, which is responsible for making the payments, is currently broke, and has been running up a tab with several attorneys for a number of years now.
One such attorney is Gregory Nicholls, who told Barbados TODAY he had not been paid by the Commission since 2013, but it was only in recent months that the Commission had not been requesting his legal services.
In fact, Nicholls said his last legal aid assignment was a manslaughter case, which he completed last year.
He said officials had since written to him advising that they were not in a postition to pay him.
“I am not complaining about not getting any work because I recognize legal aid [the Commission] was having difficulty paying money anyhow.
“My position is that failure of Government to put money behind the Legal Aid Commission has effectively created a situation where one might not get the best representation, had the system has been working,” he told Barbados TODAY.
Another senior attorney who attended Monday’s Bar Association meeting but preferred anonymity, complained that both he and his colleagues were owed “substantial” sums and were now out of pocket.
“We [attorneys] are paying all of the expenses for our clients; so they are actually funding the legal aid out of their own pocket.”
When contacted, Deputy Chairman of the Commission Roslyn Smith-Miller said she was aware of the situation but could not provide current details on either how much was owed or how many people benefited from legal aid.
However, Smith-Miller was certain that the debt was much higher than the “tens of thousands of dollars” suggested by Barbados TODAY.
Brathwaite also could not say how much was owed to lawyers, but was confident that the outstanding fees would be addressed by the million dollar supplementary money resolution, which comes amid the ongoing debate on the 2016/2017 Estimates of Revenue and Expenditure.
Those Estimates make provision for an increase in the vote to the Attorney General’s Office, which goes up to $149.6 million from $143.3 million. Of that amount the Community Legal Services Commission has been allocated 1.8 million to cover its operating expenditure.
Currently, legal aid is granted in cases of capital offences, manslaughter, infanticide, concealment of birth and rape, as well as for all offences where the person charged is a minor and in all family issues, except divorce.
All applicants for legal aid are subjected to a means test to determine their inability to pay.
Lawyers are paid fees from as low as $250 in certain appeal or paternity cases, to as high as $6,000 for a Queen’s Counsel in a capital case at the Assizes.