The economic sustainability of small communities and rural areas in Canada is of serious concern to those working in government, the private sector and the general public alike. In recent years small communities have undergone significant changes that threaten their future viability, including considerable job loss due to the decline of primary industries and migratory patterns that see increasing numbers of young rural Canadians relocating to urban centres. While public attention tends to focus on employment issues facing industries such as forestry, mining and agriculture, small communities across Canada are also facing serious challenges in regards to the attraction and retention of professional service providers, including those in the legal profession. This trend is a dangerous one as it threatens to produce a functional barrier to access to justice for the significant population of Canadians that reside outside of urban centres.
The challenges facing small communities in regards to legal professionals arise from two primary trends; the aging of the legal profession as a whole and the preference among newly called lawyers to practice in urban centres.
The demographics of the legal profession in Canada mirror that of the wider population with the proportionately large baby boom generation nearing retirement age. In real numbers, this translates into an average age for lawyers in Canada of approximately 50 years old. Exact numbers in all provinces are not available, however we do know that In British Columbia the average age of lawyers is 51 while in Ontario it is estimated that 40 percent of lawyers are over the age of 50. In small communities and rural areas, the average age is even higher with communities such as Castlegar, British Columbia showing an average lawyer age of 63 and Barrington, Nova Scotia with an average lawyer age of 60.
On the other side of this equation are the newly called lawyers who are at the commencement of their career. If the legal profession were renewing itself in a proper manner, a significant portion of new calls would be heading to rural communities to take up the practices of retiring senior lawyers. In reality, newly called lawyers are showing a clear preference towards establishing practice in urban locations. This trend can clearly by seen in a 2007 survey of articled students in British Columbia that revealed that 82.5% of students were intending to practice in the province’s urban centres of Vancouver and Victoria. The survey results are borne out by a review of the current distribution of lawyers in British Columbia which reveals that 80% of the provinces practicing lawyers are located in the Greater Vancouver and Greater Victoria regions.
The result of these two trends is a dwindling number of lawyers practicing in small communities and rural areas of Canada and a looming access to justice crisis if large numbers of lawyers decide to retire without replacements in place. The effects can already be seen in small communities across the country as lawyers report being overwhelmed with more clients than they can handle while at the same time being unable to recruit new lawyers to their communities.
The demographic issues facing small communities and rural areas have not gone unnoticed however, as organizations across the country are taking proactive steps to attract new lawyers to communities outside of urban centres. In British Columbia the Canadian Bar Association, BC Branch with funding from the Law Foundation of British Columbia has launched a three year initiative known as the Rural Education and Access to Lawyers Initiative. The Initiative is taking a multifaceted approach to the issue including the active engagement of stakeholder groups such as universities and local bar associations, and the funding of salary costs for second year summer students in select small communities throughout the province. Also in British Columbia, the provincial government announced in February of 2009, the establishment of a law school at Thompson Rivers University that will focus on the training of lawyers with a strong foundation of understanding regarding practice in a rural setting. Elsewhere across the country there are various other programs including those that encourage the entry of students from underserved communities to law school, that provide locum coverage to lawyers in small communities and that provide succession planning assistance to lawyers preparing for their retirement.
While it is too early to tell whether any of these programs have made a significant impact, it is clear that the demographic trends facing the legal profession in Canada are of serious concern to small communities and rural areas throughout the country and that focused effort is required on this front in order to ensure that the residents of these communities continue to enjoy access to justice.