Varied payment for King Valley Gang defence lawyers

Justice Minister Delroy Chuck has tabled a Bill in the House of Representatives to validate millions of dollars in legal aid fees to be paid by his ministry to lawyers representing members of the King Valley Gang who were tried in the Supreme Court last year.

The Bill The Legal Aid (Fees) (Validation and Indemnification) Act, 2021 seeks to validate and confirm as lawful the payment of fees “in variance” as to the amount of fees prescribed under section 24 of the Legal Aid Act and provide for indemnification in respect to the late payments.

Although no total of the payments was available, the schedule to the Bill showed a tariff of fees and travelling and subsistence allowances to be paid to the lawyers as follows:

* for each independent counsel: $400,000 for the first 30 days of trial and $400,000 for each subsequent period of 30 days;

* for senior counsel: $600,000 for the first 30 trial days and $500,000 for each subsequent 30 days of trial; and

* for junior counsel: $450,000 for the first 30 trial days and $400,000 for each subsequent 30 days of trial .

Chuck was fulfilling a commitment he made in December last year to the attorneys who represented Uchence Wilson, Carlington Godfrey, and another 23 accused individuals who were held as members of the gang accused of terrorising residents of Grange Hill and its environs in Westmoreland with contract killings, rapes, and a string of robberies.

It is understood that the Legal Aid counsel were reluctant to take on the cases, considering the lengthy timetable and what they said was the lack of confirmation from the minister that they would be paid “properly” for their time.

The Uchence Wilson trial took nine months and involved 24 defendants initially, while the King Valley Gang trial spanned seven months and involved nine defendants at first.

There are also fears that the failure to pay the lawyers since late last year could impact the pending trial of some 50 accused members of the St Catherine-based Klansman Gang, which the lawyers believe could last up to two years, starting this year.

A former spokesman for the Legal Aid Council confirmed that these issues arise from the reluctance of the legal aid lawyers to take on these government-subsidised commitments without full assurance of being paid on time.

Chuck noted in the Bill’s memorandum of objects and reasons that, after more than 25 people, allegedly part of the major organised criminal network, had been arrested and charged with offences under the Criminal Justice (Suppression of Criminal Organisations) Act, or the anti-gang legislation, they sought assistance under the Legal Aid Act for their defence.

Attorneys had expressed the view that a case of that magnitude would require more resources than the tariff of fees prescribed under the Legal Aid Act afforded.

Chuck said that, in the interest of justice, having regard to the urgent need to ensure access to justice for the accused individuals, and due to the unprecedented nature of the trials, after consultations with the Legal Aid Council and attorneys-at-law, he had varied the tariff of fees prescribed by the Legal Aid Regulations, 2000.

Payments pursuant to the variations were made to attorneys in respect of the matter R v Uchence Wilson and Others and the matter of R v Carlington Godfrey and Others, a case to which similar considerations were attached. However, no regulations were prescribed under the Legal Aid Act to provide the varied tariff of fees.

Consequently, a decision was taken to enact legislation to validate the payment of the fees in good faith under the varied tariff and to indemnify people liable to be proceeded against in respect of those payments. The Bill will seek to give effect to that decision.

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