The Law Council of Australia is calling on the Federal Government to provide Higher Education Loan Program (HELP) relief to increase the number of lawyers living and working in regional, rural and remote (RRR) locations.
Law Council of Australia President Luke Murphy said about a third of the Australians lived outside capital cities but less than 10 per cent of solicitors practised in a RRR location.
“This workforce shortfall adversely impacts access to justice for people who live in these underserviced regions,” Mr Murphy said.
“It can be very difficult for them to access timely legal assistance on issues ranging from criminal law matters, family law, child protection, tenancy matters, social security matters, credit and debt, and wills and estates.
“In addition, shortages of private legal practitioners in RRR areas limits availability of legal aid and pro bono assistance in these locations.
“While technology is helping, our RRR areas still face barriers to the uptake of virtual services including unreliable internet and phone connections, and a lack of digital literacy.
“There remains an urgent need for increased availability of in-person legal services in RRR areas.”
Mr Murphy said the government had offered incentives to attract teachers and health professionals to regional areas, and the council wanted this model extended to lawyers.
He said the council was seeking a HELP debt reduction and indexation relief initiative.
“Under this scheme, qualified lawyers who live and work in eligible RRR areas will be able to apply for a reduction of their outstanding HELP debt after working in that area for a requisite period, which we suggest should be at least two years,” he said.
“The scheme would also waive indexation on a practitioner’s HELP debt during that time.
“Law degrees are currently among the most expensive tertiary courses in Australia. A law student today is likely to accumulate a HELP debt of at least $70,000 prior to their admission to practice.
“This would make an offer of debt forgiveness extremely attractive and we believe an effective lever to encourage early and mid-career lawyers to consider a RRR career.
“Financial incentives are not the only factor which will affect the recruitment and retention of legal practitioners in RRR areas, but we believe this is a good starting point and could be provided at minimal expense to the Commonwealth.”
Read the council’s position paper here.