Mounting student debt means less access to justice

I was one of those students who was hit with a mega invoice from the Law Society of Upper Canada a few weeks ago. As I finished tallying the numbers, my mouth agape, I tabbed from the LSUC web site onto Facebook to see if it was just me who was surprised by the licensing fee bill. Thinking I would leave a message in the Class of 2014 group to gather my classmates’ opinions, I was met with my answer immediately upon opening my newsfeed: expletives, CAPSLOCK, and series upon series of exclamation marks described the general reaction to this LSUC fee. Yes, everyone was appalled by the bill and yes, it was significantly higher than normal — 79-per-cent higher to be exact.

I think we expected (and even then reluctantly) to pay something for the administrative costs of licensing, but this final number was a serious shock people hadn’t planned for. The almost $5,000 tab is outrageous. The conversations that followed receipt of the LSUC invoice were serious ones about how to get the cash together. At the end of three years paying five-figure annual tuition plus living costs, what were we to do with this unanticipated extra expense?

Not surprisingly, many law students, myself included, live month to month on lines of credit, government student loans, and any bursaries we can get our hands on. Some of us work part-time jobs; others dip into (or clear out) savings. And some lucky ones call on the help of parents, families, and spouses. However, student loans, savings, and the pockets of family members are not limitless and many of us are coming close to that finite end as we enter the final weeks of law school. This licensing fee throws a wrench into our attempt to be financially responsible and ration our remaining funds over the next few months of student life/unemployment.

Some students with articling jobs at large firms may be fortunate to have this fee covered, but for many this is not the case. We are left with few options: absolutely max out or extend our credit lines, borrow money from family, or awkwardly ask our future employers if they are able to cover part of the bill. None of those options are ideal (or even possible for some) and leave students in incredibly uncomfortable predicaments after investing three years and thousands of dollars to become a lawyer.

What shocked me most about the increase in fees were the implications for access to justice at a time when it feels like the entire legal community is talking about how to solve the A2J crisis in Canada. What generally comes to mind when discussing this topic are the high hourly rates lawyers charge for their services, but the increase in licensing costs reminds us of the other kind of access to justice obstacle: the price of becoming a lawyer in the first place.

The problematic nature of exorbitant tuition fees and ever-rising student debt has been discussed at length within the legal profession. This LSUC licensing fee increase represents another financial hurdle for law students to jump. It pushes us one step further away from pursuing a legal career in areas of law that need more people to provide services, but don’t typically earn as much money as Big Law.

The LSUC puts the increase down to funding the new Law Practice Program, which is ironically meant to address the A2J problem by sending law students to communities and organizations that need more manpower.

Last month, I wrote of the potential in the LPP if the LSUC managed to provide some financial aid to reduce the costs. However, when I expressed that idea, I did not anticipate the solution would be downloading the cost almost entirely onto incoming members of the law society who are already floundering in debt and have little choice in the matter.

Moreover, if the licensing fee and tuition are so high and there is no promise the LPP placements will be paid, we face the same problem all over again — very few people will be able to afford to perform much needed legal work as a result of enormous student debt.

I admired University of Windsor’s Law Union for starting an online petition in an attempt to urge the LSUC to come up with a more equitable solution to cover the LPP and reduce the financial burden on law students looking to get licensed.

On the one hand, I’m doubtful the LSUC will do anything about the cost this year because the deadline is so close. On the other hand, we have seen how much the legal profession is in flux right now. Already we’ve witnessed a number of changes (although arguably not radical enough) such as the institution of an articling alternative. There is still hope that another change could be in the works.

Whatever happens, the licensing fee increase reminds us we in the legal community need to start acting on the discussion of access to justice. Our pockets aren’t getting deeper, but the need for legal services is.

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