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Student debt top focus for law student group

|Written By Anastasiya Jogal
Student debt top focus for law student group
There are a variety of financial issues facing law students that may price people out of the profession, says Ryan Robski.

One of the things the Law Students’ Society of Ontario will focus on is managing tuition fees via the student loan re-distribution program for students who may not be able to enter law school due to financial barriers say president Ryan Robski and vice president Adam Gilani.

“[The] issue we are seeing, potentially pricing people out of the legal profession,” says Robski.

“The important thing for us and that is going to be the basis of law students occupation is the reality of tuition fees,” says Gilani. “The increasing — exponentially increasing — tuition costs for law students is a problem not just for us as students but is a problem for the profession, in terms of who is able to enter the profession and wants to graduate from law school.”

Tuition fees and other issues were at the heart of the LSSO’s 2nd annual general meeting on March 14 in Toronto.

A 2015-16 executive was also elected, including president Robski (Osgoode Hall), VPs Gilati (University of Ottawa), Shreya Tekriwal (University of Windsor), and equity officer Leslie de Meulles.

Robski notes their main concern is maintaining accessibility and inclusivity in law school.

 “We are committed as an organization to ensuring that we have diverse law schools and that means not only equity seeking groups, but also [that] it’s financially accessible to all socio-economic backgrounds,” he says.

The ever-rising cost of tuition and other financial issues will be high on the agenda this year. The tuition debt crisis came to LSSO’s attention following the “Just or Bust?” report published in September 2014 on the state of law students’ debt loads.

The comprehensive report uncovered the average amount of debt that students in Ontario are carrying, which gave LSSO a statistical basis to use as a starting point in resolving the problem.

“We now know, [it] is very concerning because of how rapidly it is growing, as well as the demographic reality of law students in Canada,” says Gilani.

Financial and demographic barriers prevail for law students who are attempting to access the legal profession, says Robski. University administrators of Ontario (LSSO represents all seven Ontario law schools) have been working to change the financial aid structure for law students says Gilani, but only one law school has taken real steps toward change.

“At York University at Osgoode Hall, the administration there has implemented a pilot project with a lot of student’s input and participation to create income contingent loans programs for group of students who are going to begin in the next year,” says Gilani.

While the program is important in addressing the issue it will only affect five law students who have signed up for it due to personal financial difficulties, says Robski.

Essentially funds will be available to them through the program to cover tuition costs, which will later be recovered. The loans and repayment programs will all depend on the student’s financial status before and following the completion of law school. To date, Osgoode Hall is the only Ontario law school that has implemented such a program in response to the alarming 2014 report.

The greater problem that is facilitated by financial barriers for the law profession is access to justice.

“We really think that tuition fees are an access to justice problem,” says Gilani.

Access to justice is the biggest problem for the profession today he notes.

“[Tuition fees] are going to be a significant barrier to legal services to the people who need it most. So that, I think is the most important thing, the bread-and-butter issue of law students and the LSSO,” says Gilani.

LSSO will be focusing on a number of things throughout the year by generating discussion around important issues with the federal and provincial government as well as agencies that implement and provide funding for various initiatives, says Robski.

Specifically the LSSO will be looking at alternative business structures as they relate to law students, as well as gathering data on the Law Practice Program, which is wrapping up its first year.

“We really see alternative business structures as an access to justice tool and something that can help us make legal services available to a wider variety of people from a wider variety of backgrounds,” says Gilani.

While the LPP is still in its early stages, Gilani says monitoring and actively requesting data from the Law Society of Upper Canada is all the LSSO can do at this point.

“We have a number of still outstanding, unanswered questions that we have put to the law society,” says Robski.

“We want to monitor it and make sure that the impact of the implementation of the LPP program is equitable and the students who are going into the LPP are coming out with a more meaningful experience and that the program itself is not going to be further marginalizing or disadvantaging those students,” says Gilani.

On Monday, the LSSO reacted to a change already in place due to its intervention. The Law Society of Upper Canada reversed its decision only provide students with digital versions of bar materials, which would have required students to pay to print it out themselves.

“We are very happy to learn that they have reconsidered in light of the feedback they were getting from students and also the advocacy we were doing as part of the LSSO,” says Robski.

“While this is a victory for us there is still mounting concern about the inaccessibility for some to enter the profession given what we are seeing in increase, licensing application fees, sky-rocketing tuition and other increased fees, so while we are very happy with the reversal on this initiative, this is a drop in the bucket.” he adds.

The LSSO had sent a letter last week to the LSUC expressing its concern and saying the move “imposes a new and unexpected cost to the licensing process, and came as a great surprise as no consultation or advance notice was given to students.” 

The implementation of another set of extra fees last year to cover the LPP almost doubled the costs for students.

Over the next year, the LSSO will also examine education reform and the accreditation model.

Updated 2:55 pm, March 30: Update on LSUC agreeing to continue to provide students with printed bar materials.

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