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Brett McGrath, President of the Law Society of NSW, has renewed calls for a debt relief scheme to incentivise lawyers to practice in rural, regional, and remote (RRR) areas. During a visit to Lismore, which experienced a significant exodus of lawyers following the devastating floods in 2022, McGrath highlighted the urgent need for legal services in these communities.

McGrath said the absence of the district’s lawyers has left the community with a “significant unmet need for legal services, which could be addressed with the right incentive”.

The proposed scheme, recommended by the recent Independent Review of the National Legal Assistance Partnership (NLAP), would forgive tertiary education debt for private lawyers who dedicate a significant portion (45 per cent) of their work to Legal Aid cases over five years and for lawyers working with non-government legal assistance providers in RRR areas over a five-year period. McGrath urged the government to implement this recommendation as a starting point and to consider the broader proposal put forth by the Law Council of Australia (LCA).

“[T]he Law Council of Australia (LCA) has provided a clear blueprint for a scheme that would extend to any lawyer making a substantial commitment to live and work in the regions. For comparatively little Commonwealth Government investment, communities like Lismore could attract the legal talent to provide its people with the access to justice they deserve,” McGrath said.

This renewed push for debt relief aims to address the significant gap in legal services in RRR areas and ensure equitable access to justice for all communities.

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Between the February 2022 flood and last week, Lismore experienced an approximate 7.5 per cent decrease in the total number of lawyers across all practice sectors. This decline was primarily due to a 14.1 per cent reduction in the number of solicitors working in private practice. Notably, the number of experienced lawyers in Lismore has also fallen by nearly 10 per cent.

McGrath acknowledged that a law degree is the most expensive degree eligible for the Higher Education Loan Program (HELP). With students likely to accumulate debts of around $70,000 during their studies, he said it represented a “heavy burden, especially for early career lawyers”.

Sean Radburn, President of the Far North Coast Regional Law Society, hailed the proposal as a “game changer”, emphasising the potential to attract early-career lawyers to regional areas and provide them with valuable experience.

“HECS and HELP debt can be crushing for a young lawyer, putting a brake on ambitions to put a deposit on a home and to build financial security for the future. As Lismore practices continue the long process of rebuilding after the floods, this is the sort of incentive that could attract early career lawyers from the city,” Radburn said.

“Lawyers in the country are generally exposed to a much broader range of legal work than can usually be found in big city firms. Those just starting out in their careers can also gain valuable client-facing and court work for which they may otherwise have to wait for years to experience.”

The Law Society of NSW’s regional meeting in Lismore provided an opportunity to assess the recovery progress and discuss ongoing support for legal practitioners affected by the 2022 floods.