Tim Haddow: ‘Fair access: the challenge for the profession and for politicians’

Tim Haddow is a mature law student at the University of Edinburgh and a former Vice-President of the university’s Law Students’ Council.  He is also campaign coordinator for the student-led Campaign for Fair Access to the Legal Profession.

 

 

 

As this event’s title indicates, fair access to the legal profession is not just about law students. It is an issue of education; and it is an issue of justice. Robin Parker has highlighted the links to wider questions of access to education. Mike Dailly has clearly illustrated the role of our legal system in shaping a just society.

So we’re delighted to see law students joined by the professional bodies and politicians to discuss fair access. In my remarks I will focus on each of these three groups in turn.

Firstly, we’re delighted to see law students here. Many will echo Craig and Suzanne’s testimony that the costs of studying the diploma in professional legal practice are an insurmountable hurdle for some and an impossible risk for many more. It’s not the only barrier to qualification; but for those able to gain law degrees, it is the single biggest hurdle.

But why is this? Partly because successive governments, of all colours, have allowed support for diploma students – support which guaranteed fair access – to dwindle away. This government has responded by increasing the number of part-funded places but the amount continues to shrink in relative terms. The intentions are laudable, but the logic is flawed: diploma students today must contribute around £10,000 of their own money, or their families’, money to access £3,400 of government support. Those that need assistance are the very people unable to benefit from it.

We’re also delighted to welcome very many senior representatives of the legal profession and representatives from several of Scotland’s university law schools.

It is the profession, not government, that defines the route to qualification. And the profession may have an important public role; but it is a predominantly in private practice. So it is legitimate to ask to what extent the public purse should be guarantor of fair access in the future as it was in the past.

Personally, I believe structural reform of the route to qualification is needed. I accept that this will not be easy or quick. There are many hurdles for any reform to overcome. Any change will certainly require leadership, imagination and perseverance.

So I have a challenge to those representatives of the legal profession here tonight. To what extent are you truly committed to fair access? How can you turn that commitment into real, positive reform; reform with fair access at its heart?

And finally, we’re delighted to have politicians here this evening. The shape of the legal profession matters to Scottish society. Parliamentarians can and should be taking both an active interest, and action, to help achieve fair access.

So I have a double challenge for our politicians.

Firstly: will you support and encourage the profession’s leadership in taking forward longer-term reform for the sake of tomorrow’s students?

And secondly: will you support and encourage the government to restore fair access to the legal profession for the sake of today’s students?

A quick, fair and effective way of doing this is to extend maintenance loans to diploma students. This government’s commitment to student support presents an opportunity to do precisely this. Even allowing for the recently announced improvements to undergraduate loans, the loans budget will grow by more than ten times the amount needed to help diploma students between next year and the following.

This same money could also help trainee Educational Psychologists, the only other profession in the same position as law. And it could go a long way to bringing about Robin’s vision of wider access to postgraduate education.

So law students will be asking the government to invest a small part of this resource in re-opening fair access to the legal profession for the short-term.

Doing so will give government and parliament the moral authority to help drive long-term change within the legal profession.

And doing so is the only way to help those of the current generation of Scotland’s young people who have the ability to become lawyers but not the ability to pay to become lawyers.

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