In the decade since, greater attention has been directed to the legal and justice needs of rural communities, with particular attention to the increased decline of legal practitioners in these areas. Indeed, many rural and regional legal service providers either have, or will soon have, insufficient legal professionals employed to respond to the legal needs of their communities. Research suggests that failure to address recruitment and retention problems in rural and regional legal practice will restrict access to justice in rural and regional Australia. However the research also suggests that students who undertake their legal studies at a rural or regional university are more likely to seek employment in a rural or regional area, compared with those who study in metropolitan areas. Despite this link, the typical law school curriculum does not actively deal with preparing graduates for employment within regional and rural community contexts.
Following this, a collaborative team of law school academics has commenced work on an Australian Learning and Teaching Council funded project that aims to develop strategies within the undergraduate law curriculum to prepare and attract lawyers and other legal professionals for legal careers in rural and regional Australia. Led by Dr Amanda Kennedy (UNE), this project represents the start of an ongoing collaboration to improve learning outcomes for rural and regional legal professionals. It intends to develop curriculum resources for use within all Australian law schools and to establish an active Rural and Regional Legal Education Network.
The team’s initial work has been to comb the existing research to document the factors that distinguish rural and regional legal practice as a career option, and to map learning resources suited to embedding within the law school curriculum strategies to expose students to, and prepare them for such career pathways.
Along with Dr Kennedy the team comprises:
Professor Paul Martin (Director, Australian Centre for Agriculture and Law, UNE), Dr Theresa Smith-Ruig, Debbie Bridge and Suzanne Whale (UNE), Professor Reid Mortensen and Caroline Hart (USQ), Associate Professor Claire Macken (La Trobe), Richard Coverdale (Director, Centre for Rural Regional Law and Justice, Deakin), Trish Mundy (Wollongong), and Dr Jennifer Nielsen (SCU).
Alongside this project, the universities concerned are collaborating in the development of a National Rural Law and Justice Alliance, which will be launched at the second National Rural Law and Justice Conference to be held at Coffs Harbour in Northern NSW between the 18th and 20th of May 2012. Together with many rural organisations, these academic institutions are making a concerted attempt to improve the quality and availability of rural law and justice services.
For more details on the National Rural Law and Justice Conference go to http://www.une.edu.au/law/rrljconference
JENNIFER NIELSEN works in the School of Law & Justice at Southern Cross University; AMANDA KENNEDY works in the Australian Centre for Agriculture and Law, at the University of New England.