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Tuesday 14 August 2012
The Scottish Government is refusing to reconsider its decision not to extend student maintenance loans for diploma in professional legal practice (DPLP) students, claiming that its new post-graduate support scheme does provide “fair access”.
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The Scottish Government is refusing to reconsider its decision not to extend student maintenance loans for diploma in professional legal practice (DPLP) students, claiming that its new post-graduate support scheme does provide “fair access”.

Student representatives from all ten Scottish universities offering law degrees have launched a new national Campaign for Fair Access to the Legal Profession (CFALP), calling on ministers to tackle the financial barriers which prevent those from poorer backgrounds entering the law.

They wrote to Education Secretary Mike Russell asking him to reconsider a decision not to extend student maintenance loans – as available to undergraduate students and other postgraduate courses – to DPLP students.

However, the Scottish Government has maintained its stance.

A spokesman said: “As part of the Scottish Government’s improvements to post-graduate support, an extra 2,300 students, including those sitting a diploma in professional legal practice, will be eligible for loan support of up to £3,400 towards the cost of their tuition fees.

“Previously only 2,700 students a year had been eligible for funding under the postgraduate student allowances scheme. This means that thousands more of the very best students have fair access an additional stage of academia, based on ability to learn, not ability to pay.”

A career as a solicitor is “overwhelmingly the preserve of those from privileged backgrounds” and urgent action is required by the Scottish Government in order to address Scotland’s “unrepresentative legal profession”, the campaigners have warned.

Their letter to the minister reads: “CFALP has been formed by concerned law students as we believe the current route to qualification as a Scottish lawyer and the Scottish Government’s policy of providing only a very limited level of student support to DPLP students creates a situation where those without substantial financial resources are excluded from the legal profession.

“We all know students who cannot consider – or have had to abandon – dreams of a legal career simply because they cannot afford to pay for the DPLP. But our concern is not just for the individuals. We believe that the Scottish Government’s current policy is leaving a legacy of an unrepresentative legal profession that will remain with Scottish society for many years.

“Unless we work now to create a profession open to all on merit, not wealth, the profession will continue to be overwhelmingly the preserve of those from privileged backgrounds. And without a representative legal profession, the task of building a legal system that fairly represents the needs and interests of all sections of Scottish society will be almost impossible.”

The Scottish Government recently extended the availability of course fee contributions through the postgraduate tuition fee loan (PTFL), but the campaigners claim this is “ineffective in terms of widening access”.

The £3,400 cap is way short of the estimated £12,000 cost of fees and living expenses, which means the loan “makes no real difference to students who cannot rely on well-off parents”, they argue.

The campaigners also point to the fact that the Scottish Government already supports student maintenance loans schemes for other professions in which employment is mainly private, such as the architecture and veterinary professions.

Architecture students benefit from up to six years of living costs support, which includes the four years of the undergraduate degree, one year of the postgraduate diploma required to gain exemption from the professional examinations, and one year of vocational training in an architectural practice.

While there is no requirement for a postgraduate qualification to enter the veterinary profession, because the qualifying undergraduate degree lasts for five years rather than four, students remain fully eligible for student support for this extra year of their undergraduate degree – meaning they benefit from five years of student maintenance loan.

The letter adds: “We believe that extending undergraduate student maintenance loans to DPLP students would give meaningful and targeted assistance to those excluded from the legal profession by the current system. It would be straightforward and quick to introduce and would bring law into line with other professions requiring postgraduate qualifications, including architecture, teaching and social work, where extended student support is available.

“Such action would make the DPLP a realistic option for students without substantial financial resources. It would allow all those with the necessary ability and ambition to compete on merit for legal training contracts, regardless of the section of society from which they come. And it would begin to tackle the massive under-representation in law of those from poorer socioeconomic backgrounds.”

The Law Society of Scotland has also urged the Scottish Government to reconsider its position.

Liz Campbell, director of education and training at the Law Society, said: "When the changes to postgraduate funding were announced, the Law Society of Scotland voiced its concern about the potential impact on access to the legal profession. We pressed the Scottish Government to reconsider its decision in relation to the diploma in legal practice, which is a requirement to qualify as a solicitor in Scotland.

“As we approach the new academic year when the move from grant funding to loan funding commences, our concerns remain and still hope that Scottish Ministers will reconsider.

“It is encouraging to see students in each of the ten universities offering the LLB coming together to campaign for improved funding for the diploma in professional legal practice and we congratulate them on this excellent new initiative.”

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