Students have two clear goals upon graduation: getting a job and paying off their debt. There is a third thing though that at one point is a motivating factor for many idealistic students—doing meaningful social justice law work. For most law students and recent graduates this third thing has fallen off the map at a time when everyone from the Chief Justices of the Supreme Court to the Bar Associations, law schools and LSUC are talking about increasing access to justice.
Steadily rising levels of tuition have become a tremendous financial barrier for students entering law school and for young lawyers aspiring to practice in social justice and to serve lower, middle income and marginal communities. Mounting debt loads in Ontario are estimated to be over $70,000 on average for graduating law students according to a recent survey of the Law Students’ Society of Ontario. The experience of law students clearly demonstrates that this model is unsustainable.
What this means for people seeking to access to the justice system is that the system becomes increasingly limited to those who can afford the staggering costs of legal representation. The rise of self-represented litigants has negative implications for the litigants themselves, the legal profession, as well as the justice system at large. Reports indicate that the increasing number of self-represented litigants positively correlates to an overall lack of faith in the functioning of the justice system in general.
The “articling crisis” is not the source of the problem, but rather, it is an aggravating feature that is complicating the transition to the practice of law in Ontario for emerging graduates. Similarly doing more pro bono work will not “fix” the system just as doing away with aticling or forcing students to article for free will not change the market dynamics which are leading to an escalation of the costs of litigation that are making the system prohibitively expensive. Well-intentioned charitable work is not the panacea.
Within this dystopic legal landscape, the A2J initiative was born out of the necessity to make the rhetoric of access to justice “walk the walk” of social justice by sharing the experience of students, practitioners and other stakeholders. A2J is focused on two things: (1) immediate action for law school tuition fee reduction; and (2) a collaborative strategy for enhancing options for working in the area of social justice law. We believe that the two prongs of the A2J strategy are inextricable.
We, as a society must take stock of where our legal system is at and where it is going. Our society is only as strong as our ability to protect the rights and dignity of those who are the most vulnerable within it.
A2J is putting out a call for action and is convening a First Assembly of concerned Ontario law students, legal practitioners, law professors, Deans and community members. Our goal is to reverse the trend of rising law school tuitions by creating a sustained advocacy campaign for law faculties, bar associations and the Law Society to reduce and constrain law school tuition in Ontario. This advocacy effort must include the active participation of students and practitioners alike, so that it radiates through each spoke of the administration of the Ontario legal system and resonate loud and clear with the Province.
We need your support. We need action now.