Yesterday morning, thousands of third-year law students across Ontario each received invoices totalling $4,859 for the articling licensing process (an increase of 79% from last year’s fee of $2,712). I was one of the lucky ones; after having a brief panic attack, I was able to forward the invoices to the law firm at which I will be articling to have them paid off. But for many, the fees present yet another barrier to entry into an already restrictive profession.
The increased fees, of course, restrict fair access to the legal profession – many students are forced to take out further loans to pay licensing fees even after their education is complete, simply because their employers cannot or will not pay candidate licensing fees. However, wider implications stem from the fact that increasing licensing fees further limits access to justice. By putting pressure on employers and students to pay higher fees, we force students off the paths that deal with every-day legal problems and encourage them to pursue high-paying careers that have little impact on the access to justice crisis. This is particularly problematic in the context of students graduating with ever-increasing law school debt: as students look to make crucial career decisions while graduating, the added – and somewhat unexpected – weight of almost $5,000 in licensing fees has a disproportionate impact on shaping legal career paths. The current strategy of proposing that firms encourage pro bono legal work attacks the symptoms of restricted access to justice, rather than the cause: the lack of affordable lawyers.
A March 2012 report published by LSUC highlights the connection between articling and access to justice, concluding that there is a shortage of access to justice-oriented articling positions. This derives, in part, from the economics of the small firms who are the major providers of legal services for day-to-day legal problems; few such firms can afford to offer articling positions to students. Moreover, given the massive debt with which many articling students leave law school, too few are able to choose freely to accept lower-wage positions that have higher social impact than higher-paying positions. Higher fees will serve to further decrease the number of employers that can afford to pay licensing fees for articling students, and will also prevent students from being able to accept positions where employers cannot pay their fees.
One of the reasons for the massive increase in fees over last year is the implementation of the Law Practice Program (LPP), which is designed to be an alternative to the articling process. The actual impact of the LPP in the context of these added fees, however, will be to doubly penalize its candidates: first, they will have to pay their fees out of pocket, instead of being able to expect an employer to pay such fees for them; and second, they will face potential discrimination as graduates of the LPP rather than students who have completed articling. Many such students whom I know personally have indicated their intentions to take out further student loans to fund the process, or to take a year off from law in order to raise the funds they need to complete the program (or to potentially find an articling employer). This defeats the point of the LPP and further penalizes poorer students who already face barriers to entering the legal profession.
Even for students who have secured articling positions, the increase in licensing fees pushes qualified candidates towards Bay Street. The Ministry of the Attorney General and several social justice-oriented employers provide limited stipends (or in some cases, no help at all) to be used towards licensing fees. Candidates articling at these places face, at best, a cash flow shortage until they actually receive the stipends later in the year; they also face the difficult choice between staying in a societally useful position and one that pays well enough to justify staying in law.
The governance structure of LSUC contributes to the issue of high licensing fees for articling students. In contrast to the wild increase in articling fees, lawyers’ licensing fees will increase by 0.8% ($15) from $1,851 to $1,866 in 2014 (paralegal fees will not increase at all). The lack of a student voice makes it almost inevitable that the bulk of fee increases will be borne by those least able to pay for it, since the benchers of the governing body – lawyers, paralegals, and laypeople – will never have to pay articling fees (again).
As members of the legal profession, we have deep-seated intuitions about fairness, and a mandate to increase access to justice. Every year, we release numerous reports and attend various meetings on furthering access to justice and reducing barriers to entering the legal profession. The increase in licensing fees is not consistent with this mandate. The strength of our commitment to fairness and access to justice must be measured by our actions which further – or frustrate – these goals, rather than by how much we discuss them.