Law Council of Australia calls for financial incentives to boost legal services in rural areas

Less than 10% of solicitors practise in regional, remote, and rural areas

Law Council of Australia calls for financial incentives to boost legal services in rural areas

The Law Council of Australia has called on the Commonwealth to provide financial incentives to increase the number of lawyers living and working in regional, rural and remote (RRR) locations.

The Law Council urged the government to introduce a Higher Education Loan Program (HELP) debt reduction and indexation relief initiative. The move aims to encourage more lawyers to live and work in underserved regions. Law Council president Luke Murphy pointed out that about a third of the Australian population lives outside the capital cities, but less than 10% of solicitors practise in a RRR location.

Murphy highlighted the impact of the current imbalance, stating, "This workforce shortfall adversely impacts access to justice for people who live in these underserviced regions. It can be difficult for them to access timely legal assistance on issues ranging from criminal law matters, family law, child protection, tenancy matters, social security matters, credit and debt, and wills and estates."

Murphy also said that the shortage of private legal practitioners in RRR areas limits the availability of legal aid and pro bono assistance in these locations.

Acknowledging the role of technology, Murphy emphasised that RRR areas face barriers to adopting virtual services, including unreliable internet and phone connections and a lack of digital literacy. Consequently, there is still a pressing need for increased availability of in-person legal services in these regions.

According to Murphy, the Regional Australia Institute reported that two in five urban workers would relocate to an RRR area if a financial incentive were involved. The government has implemented incentivisation models to draw more health practitioners and teachers to regional areas.

"We would like to see these models extended to the legal profession, which also delivers essential services to RRR communities," Murphy said. "What we are seeking is the introduction of a HELP debt reduction and indexation relief initiative."

Under the Law Council's proposed scheme, qualified lawyers who live and work in eligible RRR areas could apply for a reduction of their outstanding HELP debt after working in that area for a requisite period, which the Law Council suggested to be two years.

Murphy noted that law degrees are among Australia's most expensive tertiary courses. Today, a law student is likely to accumulate a HELP debt of at least $70,000 before admission to practice, making an offer of debt forgiveness extremely attractive.

The Law Council has released a comprehensive position paper outlining the proposed model. Murphy acknowledged that financial incentives are not the sole factor affecting the recruitment and retention of legal practitioners in RRR areas. Nonetheless, the Law Council believed this initiative was a good starting point that could be implemented at minimal expense to the Commonwealth.

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