Is law school debt an access to justice issue? Yes.

Tonight at the University of Ottawa facuty of law a discussion of this topic is underway. Students, lawyers, LSUC bencher candidates and others are examining the question and discussing what should be done. Follow #LSbencher on Twitter to keep up. I was invited but coudn’t make it. What follows would have been my opening statement:

High student debt load plainly has a negative impact on access to justice. The Law Society is obliged to facilitate access to justice and has a duty to act in the public interest. Accordingly, it bears a responsibility to lead engagement with the law schools, the province and the profession to address the challenges arising from a system that can both price qualified students out of a legal education and skew graduating students away from public interest work.

The issues are not linear nor are they limited to student debt burden. Yes, when high tuitions lead to high debt loads, it is extremely difficult to justify pursuing a lower-paying public interest career. But funding crunches at the courts, and among A2J organizations and public sector employers further reduce the opportunities for new law graduates and lawyers of all ages to carry out work at publicly or charitably funded employers. Articling and permanent legal jobs in support of community needs, human rights advocacy, or other forms of support to poor, marginalized or vulnerable individuals are increasingly scarce. And as a recent article in Precedent Magazine observed, the vitality of the criminal defence bar is at risk because with stagnating legal aid funding limiting the opportunities for a new generation of lawyers to develop theirs skills, many are simply turning to other legal activities or leaving the practice of law altogether.

Where do we begin? Skilled people and sufficient money are clearly critical to facilitating access to justice to all Ontario citizens who can’t afford adequate representation and legal support, and the system is presently bleeding, not adding these resources. Improving this situation is a burden that should be borne by all players in the system, but it is evident that ever-increasing tuition levels means the system is presently asking too much too soon of those students seeking to bring their passions to making a difference.