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Debt relief can HELP regional access to justice

Law Society of NSW 3 mins read

Thursday, 13 June 2024

Debt relief can HELP regional access to justice

A scheme to provide relief from tertiary education debt for lawyers who relocate to practise in rural, regional and remote (RRR) areas has the potential to jump start access to justice for communities in need.

President of the Law Society of NSW Brett McGrath has renewed the legal profession’s call for such a scheme while visiting law practices in Lismore in the NSW Far North Coast.

“As Lismore’s record floodwaters receded two years ago, a significant number of the district’s lawyers moved away and have not returned. This has left the community with significant unmet need for legal services, which could be addressed with the right incentive,” Mr McGrath said.

“Law is the most expensive degree eligible for the Higher Education Loan Program (HELP). Recent students are likely to amass around $70,000 in debt, including for the post-graduate courses necessary for them to qualify for admission to legal practice. This represents a heavy burden, particularly for early career lawyers.”

Last month’s Report of the Independent Review of the National Legal Assistance Partnership (NLAP) recommended that debt incurred under HELP (and its forerunner the Higher Education Contribution Scheme – HECS) be forgiven for:

  • Private lawyers who can show that 45 percent of their work over a five year period was funded by Legal Aid; and
  • Lawyers in RRR areas who work for five years with non-government legal assistance providers (e.g., Community Legal Centres).

 

Mr McGrath said the Commonwealth Government should implement this scheme as a bare minimum to improve access to justice in RRR areas.

“Welcome as the NLAP Review’s Recommendation 26 is, the Law Council of Australia (LCA) has provided a clear blueprint for a scheme that would extend to any lawyer making a substantial commitment to live and work in the regions. For comparatively little Commonwealth Government investment, communities like Lismore could attract the legal talent to provide its people with the access to justice they deserve,” Mr McGrath said.

Mr McGrath was hosted by the President of the Far North Coast Regional Law Society Sean Radburn, who has hailed the LCA’s proposal as a game changer.

“HECS and HELP debt can be crushing for a young lawyer, putting a brake on ambitions to put a deposit on a home and to build financial security for the future. As Lismore practices continue the long process of rebuilding after the floods, this is the sort of incentive that could attract early career lawyers from the city,” Mr Radburn said.

“Lawyers in the country are generally exposed to a much broader range of legal work than can usually be found in big city firms. Those just starting out in their careers can also gain valuable client-facing and court work for which they may otherwise have to wait for years to experience.”

MEDIA CONTACT:
Damien Smith | Director, Media and Public Relations
The Law Society of New South Wales

M: +61 417 788 947 | E: Damien.Smith@lawsociety.com.au  

NOTES: Law Society visit to Lismore – Thursday, 13 June 2024

Once a year, the Council of the Law Society of NSW holds a meeting in a regional area of NSW. The President Brett McGrath has chosen to convene the 2024 regional meeting in the Far North Coast. Regional Law Society Presidents from across NSW will also hold a regular meeting.

The location of the meeting has enabled Mr McGrath and senior Law Society personnel to engage with legal practitioners in Lismore two years on from the floods of 2022 to discuss progress on their recovery from the disaster and how the Law Society might offer the profession continuing support.

The table below illustrates the changes in solicitor numbers by practice sector from the time of the flood event in February 2022, until last week. In all practice sectors in Lismore there has been a decline of approx. 7.5 percent in the total number of lawyers. This decline was driven almost exclusively by a 14.1 percent decline in the number of solicitors in private practice in Lismore. The number of experienced lawyers working in Lismore has fallen by almost 10 percent.

Solicitors nominating a principal place of practice in the 2480 postcode:

Date

Total Practitioners

Total Practitioners with 5 or more years of practice

% Experienced Practitioners

Feb 2022

174

134

77%

June 2024

161 (-7.5%)

121 (-9.7%)

75%

 

Practice Sector

Feb 2022

June 2024

COMMUNITY LEGAL SERVICE

20

19 (stable)

GOVERNMENT

57

58 (stable)

PRIVATE PRACTICE

92

79 (-14.1%)

CORPORATE & NLE

5

5 (stable)

TOTAL

174

161

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