Difficulties in recruiting and retaining lawyers in rural and regional Australia are seriously threatening access to justice for residents of these areas, a new study released today has found.
The study, undertaken by the Law Council of Australia, surveyed 1,185 regional and rural legal practitioners throughout Australia.
One of the key findings was that many rural and regional practices do not have enough lawyers to service community needs, with 43 per cent of principals indicating that their practice currently does not have enough lawyers to service its client base.
The problems looks set to escalate, with a large number of lawyers - many of whom are sole practitioners - looking to retire from practice in the next five years. Of the sole practitioners who made up 46 per cent of respondents to the survey, 30 per cent have been practicing in country areas for more than 21 years, and 36 per cent don't intend to be practicing within the next five years.
Not surprisingly, succession planning is a key concern for heads of country law firms, with 71 per cent listing it as their biggest concern. Other key concerns raised by respondents were attracting additional lawyers (58 per cent) and attracting lawyers to replace departures (51 per cent).
Brain drain is another key problem for regional and rural Australia, with 30 per cent of younger respondents (between 20 and 29 years of age) indicating that they only intend to practice in their current area for less than two years. 25 per cent said they would leave the country for better pay, 28 per cent to join a city firm and 15 per cent to start a new career.
The survey also indicated that country lawyers are taking on a very significant amount of legal aid and pro bono work. 51 per cent of respondents said that their practice takes on legal aid matters, the majority dealing with more than 30 cases a year. More than 64 per cent of respondents said their firm takes on pro bono matters, and 71 per cent said they took on other unpaid, voluntary work within their area.
The Law Council survey was submitted electronically to nearly 6000 lawyers in rural, regional and remote areas across Australia. The overall response rate was 24 per cent.