Law Society of Scotland urged to raise game over fair access

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THE cost to many law graduates of undertaking the diploma in professional legal practice, the mandatory qualification for admission to the bottom rung of the solicitor profession in Scotland, is not only too expensive but socially regressive.

Unless some action is taken, admission to the profession will become the preserve largely of the children of the comfortably off. That will be bad for diversity within the profession, as well as closing the door on the ambitions of young men and women from less well-off families.

This analysis has been well rehearsed by the Campaign for Fair Access to the Legal Profession (CFALP). However, a step towards formulating a response will be taken later this month when the council of the Law Society of Scotland discusses a paper submitted by CFALP, the Scottish Young Lawyers’ Association (SYLA) and the Trainee and Newly Qualified Society (TANQ).

The current route to qualification requires completion of the diploma in professional legal practice (DPLP). The diploma is needed for the next career stage, securing a traineeship. Studying the DPLP full-time costs more than £13,000, of which students must contribute at least £10,000.

The broad £10,000 estimate is based on 2013/14 course fees and materials of between £6,000 and £7,000, dependent on institution; living costs depend on individual circumstances but an estimate used by the Scottish Government is £7,125 per year. The total cost of the DPLP is therefore more than £13,000 less a loan, capped at £3,400, towards course fees.

Tim Haddow of CFALP says: “Most must make this investment with no assurance of a traineeship, and in the knowledge that nearly a quarter of recent DPLP graduates failed to secure a traineeship.”

CFALP wants the Law Society of Scotland to commit to creating a route to qualification that meets the needs of the profession and employers but which eliminates barriers to fair access.

If the council decides to take the matter further it will pass the proposals to the society’s education and training committee for exploration and discussion.

The director of education and training, Liz Campbell, says: “The law society would always support fair access and the council will give the CFALP paper a full hearing but it is important to 
realise that major reform doesn’t happen overnight. We are only in the second year of the Professional Education and Training (PEAT) changes to the postgraduate diploma system. That took about five or six years to work through on its own.”

During those years of development and implementation the system of funding a limited number of maintenance grants was abruptly stopped in 2010.

Campbell points out that with 300 grants available each year for around 700 diploma candidates there was always a level of self-funding. However, she acknowledges, funding did not figure significantly in the PEAT discussions and the negotiations that followed with government and the law schools. CFALP, SYLA and TANQ are arguing that funding has become the elephant in the room.

Haddow says: “Employment may change with alternative business structures and new ways of supplying legal services, but there is still going to be a solicitor profession. We urge the law society to make sure fair access is at the heart of routes into the profession, however they evolve.”

Fiona McAllister, president of SYLA, says: “There is no clear vision as to the shape reform might take. Options include moving to an integrated undergraduate and postgraduate course, a single five-year undergraduate programme, absorbing the diploma into an extended period as a trainee solicitor or introducing a short, but intensive, PEAT1 (formerly known as the diploma) course as is available from some providers in England and Wales.

“We would like to be part of a consultation process, ideally led by the society but involving other stakeholders, to ensure we have the most efficient, effective route to qualification and which offers a level playing field.”