OTTAWA – Why do Canada’s law graduates gravitate to big cities – and why is that a problem? Maybe because they can’t afford to work elsewhere. A recent survey in Ontario found that most law students are in debt, and graduates owe, on average, more than $83,000 in their final year of law school. Many finance their studies through a combination of government loans, grants, and private loans, such as lines of credit. When they graduate, they’re forced to take higher-paying urban jobs to service their debt. The clumping of lawyers in big cities means smaller communities – and smaller legal issues – get ignored, contributing to this country’s access to justice crisis.
The Canadian Bar Association’s Young Lawyers and Law Students have written to Employment Minister Patty Hajdu asking the federal government to extend its loan forgiveness program, currently available to family doctors and nurses who agree to practise in rural and remote areas, to new lawyers. Because in the same way that serious illness can develop when minor medical problems are left untreated, unaddressed legal issues can have a domino effect on other parts of peoples’ lives, often creating a burden on areas as health, employment and housing.
“Expanding loan forgiveness to new lawyers would be a winning solution for everyone,” says Kang Lee, Chair of the CBA’s Young Lawyers Section. “It would give people in rural and remote areas better access to legal advice by making it financially viable for law grads to accept rural or remote positions that might be more professionally rewarding.”
“The high cost of law school tuition is a deal-breaker for promising students from low-income backgrounds, and if there’s no light at the end of the tunnel – just years of working to barely service a punishing debt – they won’t even apply,” says Kanika Sharma, Chair of the CBA’s Law Students Section. “But the legal profession needs that diversity of backgrounds and of voices to serve the people who would be our clients.”
While patchwork solutions exist across the country, depending on the province and the debt load, the Law Students and Young Lawyers are asking the government to show leadership by developing a comprehensive national response to the problem.
- People in rural and remote communities tend to have more barriers to accessing legal services than those urban areas including fewer affordable transportation options, more limited digital and communications technologies, and the limited number of service providers.
- There are far fewer legal professionals working in rural and remote settings – for example, in 2016, 75 per cent of the lawyers in British Columbia worked in Vancouver, Victoria and Surrey.
- There are far fewer public and free options for legal assistance in rural and remote areas.
- The average annual tuition for common law programs in Canada in 2017-18 was $17,000. In 2018-19, University of Toronto’s law school had the highest annual tuition, at $36,720.
- The Law Students Society of Ontario’s 2014 “Just or Bust” survey suggested as few as 40 per cent of students finish their undergraduate degree debt-free, meaning that most will carry undergraduate debt over into their next degree. Yet 61 per cent of respondents started law school debt-free, possibly meaning students with debt were less likely to go to law school.
- Also according to the LSSO’s 2014 survey, the combination of loans and grants available to law students would cover less than half of the U of T tuition.