Scheme to jump start access to justice for communities in need

A scheme to provide relief from tertiary education debt for lawyers who relocate to practise in rural, regional and remote (RRR) areas has the potential to jump start access to justice for communities in need.

President of the Law Society of NSW Brett McGrath has renewed the legal profession’s call for such a scheme while visiting law practices in Lismore in the NSW Far North Coast.

“As Lismore’s record floodwaters receded two years ago, a significant number of the district’s lawyers moved away and have not returned. This has left the community with significant unmet need for legal services, which could be addressed with the right incentive,” Mr McGrath said.

“Law is the most expensive degree eligible for the Higher Education Loan Program (HELP). Recent students are likely to amass around $70,000 in debt, including for the post-graduate courses necessary for them to qualify for admission to legal practice. This represents a heavy burden, particularly for early career lawyers.”

Last month’s Report of the Independent Review of the National Legal Assistance Partnership (NLAP) recommended that debt incurred under HELP (and its forerunner the Higher Education Contribution Scheme – HECS) be forgiven for:

  • Private lawyers who can show that 45 percent of their work over a five year period was funded by Legal Aid; and
  • Lawyers in RRR areas who work for five years with non-government legal assistance providers (e.g., Community Legal Centres).

Mr McGrath said the Commonwealth Government should implement this scheme as a bare minimum to improve access to justice in RRR areas.

“Welcome as the NLAP Review’s Recommendation 26 is, the Law Council of Australia (LCA) has provided a clear blueprint for a scheme that would extend to any lawyer making a substantial commitment to live and work in the regions. For comparatively little Commonwealth Government investment, communities like Lismore could attract the legal talent to provide its people with the access to justice they deserve,” Mr McGrath said.

Mr McGrath was hosted by the President of the Far North Coast Regional Law Society Sean Radburn, who has hailed the LCA’s proposal as a game changer.

“HECS and HELP debt can be crushing for a young lawyer, putting a brake on ambitions to put a deposit on a home and to build financial security for the future. As Lismore practices continue the long process of rebuilding after the floods, this is the sort of incentive that could attract early career lawyers from the city,” Mr Radburn said.

“Lawyers in the country are generally exposed to a much broader range of legal work than can usually be found in big city firms. Those just starting out in their careers can also gain valuable client-facing and court work for which they may otherwise have to wait for years to experience.”