Walkers’ UK lawyers lead pro bono action in the Caymans

The existence of a pro bono and legal aid programme in the Cayman Islands is largely thanks to a number of UK-qualified lawyers.

The story stretches back to 1999, when Walkers became the first major Caymans firm to establish a legal aid department. This was thanks in part to the work of UK barristers.

Best known for its glamorous offshore clientele and its role in high-profile matters such as the Eurobank case, the firm was faced with a dearth of lawyers willing to undertake legal aid work. Local judges issued a plea to major law firms to pull their weight and Walkers responded with the hire of UK-qualified barrister Marcus Thompson of 23 Essex Street, who established its legal aid department.

Thompson has since returned to the UK, but another English barrister, criminal defence specialist Laurence Aiolfi of Francis Taylor Building, has now taken on the role of head of legal aid.

Between 80 and 90 per cent of Aiolfi’s caseload is legal aid and pro bono work. He advises clients largely on criminal matters in the Magistrates Court, the Grand Court and the Court of Appeal. Where legal aid does not cover the cost of representation, the firm picks up the difference on a pro bono basis.

The legal aid department is housed in separate offices from Walkers’ headquarters. According to litigation partner Diarmad Murray: “It’s a world away from the formal, imposing atmosphere that large firms radiate.”

The Caymans’ only pro bono organisation was another Walkers initiative. Legal Befrienders was founded by Walkers litigation associate Sara Collins-Francis in 1998, to offer legal advice to victims of domestic assault. The programme has since grown to advise on all legal domestic matters, including divorce, maintenance, custody and immigration.

Among its key instructions, Walkers’ pro bono department advised on one of the Cayman Islands’ first asylum cases, after a group of Afghani asylum seekers arrived in the Caymans en route to Canada.

Aiolfi said: “It is imperative that everyone be given a fair hearing in court, and this is the firm’s way of ensuring that we provide fair representation to those in the community that need the assistance.”