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QLS: Hike in legal study fees likely to impact society’s most disadvantaged

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Proposed increases in fees for law students would severely impact people from disadvantaged socio-economic, cultural and linguistically diverse backgrounds, according to Queensland Law Society.

QLS President Luke Murphy said the Society was concerned that the Federal Government’s proposed changes to the Higher Education Support Amendment Bill 2020 would act as a financial impediment to prospective law students and “add a further barrier to those who are underrepresented in the legal profession”.

Mr Murphy this week responded to a request for the Society’s views on proposed changes, from Law Council of Australia Chief Executive Officer Michael Tidball, in an 8 September letter, saying: “QLS disagrees that the study of law is not in line with national priorities or that working in the law should be categorised as less of a labour market priority than the areas listed.

“QLS shares the concern of the Law Council of Australia that the proposed increase in financial contributions for those studying law will act as an impediment for prospective students from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds.

“And, (it) will add a further barrier to those who are underrepresented in the legal profession, including those from culturally and linguistically diverse communities.”

It is understood the changes proposed in the Bill would focus on realigning public investment in higher education towards national priorities and emerging labour market areas such as nursing, health, teaching and information technology.

Conversely, people studying arts, law, economics and other areas would see increases in their student fee contributions.

Mr Murphy said the continued supply of legal students through accessible education and legally qualified workers throughout the workforce was critical to ensure:

  • access to justice and the operation of the rule of law during this unprecedented period of time when disadvantaged individuals (financially, socially, health, age, employment, location) have significantly elevated levels of legal need and communities are vulnerable to injustice without effective legal advice and representation
  • business survival and rights of workers are at risk across most sectors of the economy and legal need in the commercial sector is high to navigate altered operating arrangements (such as insolvency liability changes or commercial leasing arrangements)
  • cyber threats are growing and there is a role for both preventative and restorative legal assistance to individuals and business affected by bad online actors
  • recovery from natural disasters events, such as significant bushfires, involve the resolution of often complex legal issues for affected individuals and businesses following the initial emergency first response to get them back to the place they would have been but for the disaster
  • recognition and defence of human rights for the public in accessing services and program delivery for the disadvantaged in our community
  • promotion of good corporate accountability and administration to fulfil corporate social responsibility mandates of private companies in disrupted and difficult times, and
  • the Federal Government maximises the benefit it can obtain from its significant funding for legal assistance services which relies heavily upon the contribution of law students and recent graduates.

Mr Murphy said the proposed measures would also reduce the number of qualified, representative legal graduates contributing to society in many critical ways at time when they are most needed.

“The legal need from the current pandemic and oncoming disaster events will be felt for some years and the community needs continuity in its legal profession to respond and deal with those challenges successfully,” he said.

“Now is not the time to leave the community vulnerable to growing legal need. There is a real risk that increased barriers to entry will reduce the pool of talented students entering legal studies.

“This will have an adverse impact on law firms with graduate programs and student intakes as competition for the best candidates will be heightened.

“While QLS supports measures to encourage regional and remote students, we have serious concerns about the medium and longer term impacts measures in this Bill will have on the health and accessibility of the legal profession in our jurisdiction.”

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