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Outside the box

12 December 11

Fresh thinking is needed in relation to the Diploma, in the wake of the Scottish Government announcement that no more grant-funded places will be available

by Catriona Headley

On 24 November 2011, the Scottish Government issued a news release in connection with postgraduate funding which, although it didn’t say it outright, confirmed the end of the 300 ring-fenced grant places for students on the Diploma in Legal Practice in 2012-13.

The maintenance grant for students on the Diploma in Legal Practice being long gone, there remained 300 grants which contributed towards the fees of the course. The 300 grant-funded places had always been distributed on the basis of academic merit, but this does not reduce their importance for enabling access to the profession for those of limited means. While state loan funding is arguably better than having to obtain funding from a bank – or having to self-fund – this change will undoubtedly lead to many law students wondering whether additional student debt is something they can afford or want.

The implications for students in 2012-13 are, sadly, almost impossible to say. Not only have the grants disappeared, but the ring fence has also. Now, law departments offering PEAT1 (the new name for the Diploma in Legal Practice) will have to lobby the university, in competition with other postgraduate departments, for loan-funded places. How many the individual providers will be able to obtain cannot be said. What is also yet to be determined is on what basis the schools will choose to distribute the funded places: keep the status quo and stick to distribution on academic merit, or change to a means-tested system?

All of these questions remain to be answered only a few months before applications for the 2012-13 course are to be submitted. Had the Government engaged in any sort of meaningful discussion with the legal profession on the implications of this change, they would have known that their timing could hardly have been worse.

The value of a non-vocational LLB degree is strong, but the profession wants job-ready trainees. This circle can only be squared with a transitional professional course. The law is unusual among the professions by having this mandatory stage of learning which is not covered by the undergraduate degree or by on-the-job training. This fact justifies the previous “ring fence” that was afforded to the funding of the Diploma in Legal Practice.

It is time for some “blue sky” thinking on the part of the profession and those involved with legal education. While a review of legal education and training was completed within the last 10 years, arguably the landscape has now changed sufficiently to revisit the issue. The changes which were brought in by the review in relation to PEAT1 increased flexibility and competition for providers. Is it time to consider whether PEAT1/the Diploma can be provided in an intensive but short course over eight weeks? Will training firms invest in talented young lawyers and assist with the course fees? Does the profession value the principle of fair access to a career in the law, irrespective of background? And if so, does it value it enough to increase the practising certificate fee in order to have a fund to assist those who are prevented from pursuing a career in the law for financial reasons?

The SYLA fears that the changes to postgraduate funding, combined with the downturn in the trainee and newly qualified recruitment market, will have a long term and detrimental impact on the legal profession in Scotland. However, it is within the gift of the profession as a whole to address these problems. If nothing is done, we risk losing young legal talent and deterring the next generation from pursuing a career in our profession.

Catriona Headley is President of the Scottish Young Lawyers Association

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