Student loan crisis exacerbates access to justice problem in Ontario

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Ontario bar candidates collectively pay more than $90,000 in undergraduate and law school tuition to obtain their license to practice law. How can students who give up seven years of time and income pay their tuition and living expenses given the time and financial investment involved in practicing law? Student loans and personal lines of credit.

A 2014 survey conducted by the Law Students’ Society of Ontario (LSSO) found that 64.4 percent of law students depended on private lines of credit because government loans were not enough to pay tuition and living expenses. By 2018, that number had risen to 75.12 percent of law students surveyed. Most shockingly, a 2019 study by the Canadian Bar Association found that Ontario bar candidates owe an average of $83,000 by the time they graduate from law school. The student loan crisis is having a negative impact on admissions candidates individually and the legal profession in general.

The high cost discourages potential candidates from becoming lawyers. For example, many bright students from low-income neighborhoods might consider becoming a lawyer for three years, which costs $20,000 to $40,000 (like in Quebec or the UK). Fewer, however, are forced to spend seven years at a cost of more than $90,000 to become a lawyer. While this affects the pool of licensees entering the legal profession, it also exacerbates the problem of access to justice, as it is often the candidates hailing from these low-income neighborhoods who are the ones who are providing legal services to clients in those underserved provide communities.

Candidates from low-income neighborhoods are disproportionately disadvantaged compared to their peers who can count on financial support from their parents. Of course, those candidates from lower-income neighborhoods and underserved communities who are undeterred by expensive licensing requirements will start their careers with a lot more debt when they are finally able to offer their legal services to clients. The student loan crisis is exacerbating the problem of access to justice in at least three different ways.

First, these newly licensed attorneys are being pressured to move to larger cities because they literally cannot afford to work anywhere else. In other words, larger cities like Toronto are the only legitimate markets where wages are high enough to help heavily indebted licensees service their student loans and pay off their personal lines of credit.

Second, there is a long list of potential clients who have legal problems that need solving, but who cannot afford to become clients because the cost to the judiciary is too high. In other words, many prospects cannot afford the hourly rates or flat-rate service fees charged by heavily indebted licensees servicing their debts.

Third, the heavily indebted licensees ignore the underserved communities they come from because they cannot afford to work outside of larger cities like Toronto. This exacerbates the problem of access to justice that lower-income neighborhoods and underserved rural and remote communities are already facing.

While I have highlighted just three ways in which the student loan crisis is exacerbating the problem of access to justice in Ontario, there are countless others. The Law Society of Ontario (LSO) doesn’t need to travel abroad to get ideas on how to reduce their candidates’ debt burdens and improve access to justice.

The LSO can look to its neighboring province of Québec for a convincing alternative. As I have argued before, the Quebec bar admissions process shows that technical qualifications can be obtained in under seven years of study and at a lower cost than their Ontario counterparts. The LSO can also borrow money from existing student loan forgiveness programs to alleviate student debt and improve access to justice in underserved communities.

For example, a primary care physician or general practitioner working in an underserved rural or remote community could forgive up to $40,000 in student loans ($8,000 per year) over a five-year period. Likewise, a nurse could be forgiven for up to $20,000 in student loans ($4,000 per year).

In addition, Student Aid British Columbia offers a similar loan forgiveness program for college graduates in select occupations who agree to work in publicly funded institutions in underserved communities. Depending on the total number of personal hours they put in, employees are eligible for 10 to 20 percent forgiveness on their student loans.

Apparently, the LSO has a variety of ways to reduce the debt burden of law students and improve access to justice. Establishing a program that encourages newly licensed attorneys to spend time in lower-income neighborhoods and rural and underserved communities by forgiving a portion of their student loans would achieve both goals.

In the spirit of continually improving the mental well-being of legal professionals, the LSO should work with the Ontario and federal governments to address the student loan crisis and improve access to justice in the province. Together we can build a better future for all Canadians.

George Monastiriakos is an articling student at Delaney’s law firm in Ottawa, Ont. His work was previously published by news week, The Institute for Political Research, The Globe and the Mail, The hill timeand The national interest. He can be reached at Twitter.

The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the author’s company, its customers, The Lawyer’s Journal, LexisNexis Canada or any of their respective affiliates. This article is for general informational purposes and should not be construed as legal advice.

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