Forgiving Student Loans Improves Access to Justice and Diversity
New lawyers willing to work up north should be granted relief from student loans. Currently, lawyers who work for the BC government are entitled to student loan forgiveness. Lawyers who work in underserved rural communities though, are not entitled to any BC student loan forgiveness. On the other hand, doctors, nurses and other health professionals are entitled to forgiveness of their entire BC student loans after working for five years in an underserved rural community. Rural communities would benefit from lawyers being entitled to student loan relief.
Put simply, a BC loan forgiveness program aimed at underserved or “high-needs” communities would improve access to justice in BC. From Prince Rupert to Kitimat to Creston, many “high-needs” communities require greater access to legal advice in family, wills and estates, criminal and other practice areas. Those communities, however, are faced with a shortage of lawyers. “High-needs” communities are those with a ratio of less than one lawyer per 1,000 residents, much lower than the provincial average of one lawyer per 450 residents. Without easily accessible legal advice, access to justice is not achieved.
New lawyers, saddled by high student loan debts, are simply not flocking to rural communities. The lower paycheques typically offered by rural communities are a barrier. Lower paycheques mean many more years before student loans are paid off. A 2013 Globe and Mail article entitled “Today’s law grad: Six figures in debt and heading to Bay Street” says it all. Without student loan relief, new law graduates often target higher paycheques to pay off their student loans. With most high paying jobs located in large law firms, many law graduates would rather compete to stay in urban centres like Vancouver than move to rural communities.
Many law schools are beginning to recognize the problem of high student debt loads. Osgoode Hall’s law school has implemented a pilot project, an income contingent loan program aimed at granting eligible students relief against tuition payments, which are to be repaid according to their post-law school income levels. This type of program encourages new lawyers to work in lower-paying poverty law areas or rural communities and thus increase access to justice.
Other forms of relief are emerging. In 2014, Newfoundland and Labrador became the first province to replace its student loans system with a needs-based grant system. That same year, the Manitoba government announced it would erase interest payments on all outstanding Manitoba student loans. This year, the Ontario government announced that it would grant tax credits and similar relief to those in need by essentially offering free tuition to low income families and tuition fee reductions to lower income families.
Tuition fees are certainly a lot higher than when I was at law school. They range from $9,029 a year at the University of Victoria to $11,448 a year at Allard School of Law (UBC) to a high of $17,828 per year at Thompson Rivers University.
High tuition fees and student loan debts also act as barriers to diversity among law students. A 2012 BC Law Society report showed that visible minorities and Aboriginal lawyers remain underrepresented in the legal profession. In order to promote diversity and inclusiveness, a law degree should remain as affordable as possible to appeal to a broad socio-economic range.
We are currently working on finalizing a formal submission asking the provincial government to broaden its loan relief program to include lawyers who commit to working for five years in rural communities. In my view, it makes sense to expand the current loan forgiveness program to include lawyers practising in rural communities.