In Parliament last month I lead a Member’s Debate on the issue of Fair Access to the Legal Profession.
The debate was prompted after a campaign group contacted me to highlight concerns that funding support for students working towards a Diploma in Professional Legal Practice (DPLP) disadvantages those from low-income backgrounds.
In order to become a lawyer in Scotland, students must undertake a four-year undergraduate course, followed by the one year DPLP before entering a two-year traineeship.
This seven-year process can lead to real financial hardship for students but it is the DPLP which causes particular concern.
While undergraduate students receive support for tuition fees and living costs and trainees receive an, albeit meagre, income, students on the DPLP receive less support. All DPLP students can apply for a postgraduate tuition fee loan of £3,400. However, the cost of fees for the course ranges from £5,300 to £6,300 not including the cost of materials such as text books. At the same time, DPLP students cannot apply for a loan to cover living costs. This situation immediately acts as a barrier to students from low-income households.
The Scottish Government have stated that students can also apply for a career development loan through a commercial bank to help ease the financial pressure. However, the people most likely to need this support are the ones who would be least likely to be approved for a bank loan in the first place. There is also the fact that repayment of career development loans begins immediately after the period of study ends, irrespective of whether the graduate has found a job.
The implications of the current funding arrangement impact not only on students but on the legal profession itself. The cost of repaying debts accumulated over years of study inevitably mean that students chase traineeships with the maximum financial return. For the vast majority of newly qualified graduates, that means a big firm in one of Scotland’s cities. That has clear implications for the provision of legal services in less commercially viable rural areas.
During the debate, I called for the Scottish Government to organise a summit, to be attended by students, academics, representatives of the legal profession and politicians, so that concerns could be discussed and a possible way forward identified.
The proposal was supported by parties across the chamber as a practical way to bring all the key players together to make progress on widening access to Scotland’s legal system.
However, I was deeply disappointed that the Minister chose to ignore the suggestion and the valid points made by members from every party across the chamber during what had been a serious and constructive debate.
The Scottish Government has consistently failed to acknowledge legitimate concerns that have been raised by among others the NUS and the Law Society.
Scotland cannot afford a legal system that is closed only to those from the highest income backgrounds. It isn’t fair and it won’t lead to a legal system built on the principles of access to all.
I hope the Cabinet Secretaries for Education and Justice will engage in finding a solution to a problem their government has made worse.
I written to the Scottish Government to ask them to agree to meet with representatives from across the different fields affected to discuss concerns and find a constructive way forward.