Access to Justice and the Student Debt Crisis
Is law school student debt an access to justice issue?
The debt load carried by many law students has increased considerably over the last five to ten years, without a balancing increase in high paying job prospects. This is not what might be considered a “traditional” access to justice issue. It doesn’t reduce the availability of legal services, and while it might create an incentive to charge more for services rendered, the competition among junior lawyers who are opening their own firms should work to keep fees at a reasonable level.
If, however, we accept that having a broadly diverse population of lawyers benefits the profession and increases access to justice, then diversity of socio-economic class becomes an issue that needs to be addressed. High fees are more of a barrier to students who cannot expect financial assistance from family. The resulting requirement to take out bigger student loans will also deter some students from choosing law school.
High student debt may also have the result of driving students who entered law school with an ideal of being able to give back to, or support, a particular disadvantaged community into abandoning that ideal. Legal clinics and community organizations do not often pay enough for a student to work there, pay back their debt and put food on the table.
Unfortunately, to the best of my knowledge the Law Society of Upper Canada is in no position to dictate to Universities regarding the fees they charge for law school. One thing that the Society can do, however, is work with the government to restructure student loans. If the LPP remains as a separate step between law school and Bar Exams, then the government should understand that it is a period of schooling, and treat students involved in the LPP as though they are taking another term of school.
In addition, I would encourage the Law Society to move further in working with the government. The Society has identified areas – both geographical and areas of practice – where problems of access to justice are greatest. In the past, provincial governments have extended loan forgiveness or fee bonuses to medical professionals willing to work in under served areas. The current Ontario government takes access to justice seriously enough that it would only make sense for them to offer a plan that would suspend loan repayments and interest accrual when a newly licensed lawyer starts working in a designated area. Depending on the need, and the new lawyer’s area of practice, the government could also write off a percentage of the debt after each year worked.
Should I be elected, I would be committed to advocating within the Society for increased access to the profession for people who represent not just the racial diversity of Ontario, but also the province’s socio-economic diversity. The Law Society may not be able to reduce the costs of law school, but planning for changes to articling, the LPP, and the Bar Exams should take into account financial accessibility. Between what the Society can do directly, and what it can obtain through government programs, I would hope to diminish debt as a barrier to access to the profession, and as a barrier to access to justice.
I’d like to thank the University of Ottawa Social Justice Caucus for holding a forum on this important topic, and for inviting me to speak. I regret being unable to attend. The above are my remarks as submitted in writing to the forum.