Event review

Image © Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body – 2012. Licensed under the Open Scottish Parliament Licence v1.0.This evening marked what the Campaign for Fair Access to the Legal Profession hopes will be a significant event in bringing about change that will see access to the Scottish legal profession re-opened to students from less privileged backgrounds.

At Fair Access to the Legal Profession: Questions of Justice and Education, an event in the Scottish Parliament sponsored by Marco Biagi, the SNP MSP for Edinburgh Central, politicians gathered alongside law students, fair access campaigners and the legal profession’s representative bodies to discuss fair access to the legal profession.  The result was a remarkable consensus on the need for change.

The event heard from a number of speakers.  Mr Biagi spoke of his pride in being part of a government that believed in free education.  But noted that this pride should not prevent it being argued that more can be done, and that to look again at the issues around access to the diploma in professional legal practice, and other postgraduate qualifications, was consistent with the government’s commitment to properly funded education.

Mike Dailly, law centre solicitor and prominent social justice campaigner, discussed the need for change in the context of the role of the legal profession in shaping society and its laws.  Law, he said, can be a source of hope or a source of misery.  But he warned of the danger that the current funding situation is creating a timewarp sending us back to a situation where only the privileged could become lawyers.

Robin Parker, President of NUS Scotland, discussed the barriers to entering the professions represented by the low participation of poorer students at undergraduate level.  He recognised the work, such as that done by the University of Edinburgh in widening access, but argued that more must be done to encourage and create incentives for this task.  And as a non-lawyer, he added his voice to the need to for parliament to make professions of societal importance, such as the legal profession, representative of Scottish society.

The event then heard two current law undergraduates speak powerfully of their own circumstances.  Suzanne spoke of the hurdles she had overcome to afford to support herself as an undergraduate and her painful realisation that she would be unable to pursue a career as a lawyers simply because she could not afford to pay to study the diploma.  Craig highlighted the telling contrast between the approach to widening access at undergraduate level, where the SNP’s abolition of tuition fees was a factor that encouraged him to go to university; with the situation for the diploma, where he now finds himself cut off from becoming a lawyer due to the absence of support with the costs of studying.

Tim Haddow, law student and CFALP campaign coordinator, concluded the formal part of the meeting, discussing the challenges of addressing the fairer access issue.  In the longer term, he argued that the legal profession must face the challenge of reforming the route to qualification to enshrine fair access.  And in the shorter term, he challenged politicians to take advantage of the government’s commitment to fair access to work for the extension of maintenance loans to diploma students.

The debate was then opened to comments from the floor.  Politicians contributing included Sarah Boyack MSP, Liam McArthur MSP, and Alison Johnstone MSP (Labour, Liberal Democrat and Green respectively).  Law students also contributed.  Mr Austin Lafferty, President of the Law Society of Scotland, spoke of his own conviction that the profession needed those from all backgrounds.  Dr Nick McKerrell, of Glasgow Caledonian University, spoke from the perspective of a ‘new’ university highlighting, among other things, the growth in the number of places on the LLB and the diploma at a time when access was becoming increasingly difficult.

Speaking after the event, Tim Haddow, CFALP campaign coordinator said:

We were absolutely delighted to have been part of tonight’s event.

What was most remarkable was the sense of consensus from the meeting.  We assembled a diverse range of participants.  And not just in political terms: the diversity of the legal profession was represented, from law centre solicitor and small law firm to some of Scotland’s largest commercial firms.  And from the Law Society of Scotland itself to the organisations representing trainees, students and newly qualified solicitors.

But all present, politicians and lawyers, were agreed on the need for change.  This event has the potential to be the start of a process that will bring about this change.  As we have argued, both politicians and the profession must act.  We hope that both groups will now take up the challenge addressing their own contributions to re-opening fair access to the legal profession.

Further information:

Mike Dailly’s reflections on the event are available on his blog here.

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