A fierce fight at the Bar

A school that for 140 years has held a monopoly on training for barristers now faces tough competition
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The Independent Online
For more than 140 years, one school has held the monopoly on training for the Bar. Yesterday that school faced some tough questions as it presented its case for a place in the new competitive world of barrister training to a seven-member Bar Council validation panel, headed by Sir David Calcutt QC.

The Inns of Court School of Law (ICSL), whose origins date back to 1852, was among 17 universities and law schools to apply to run Bar vocational courses from September 1997. Those who made it onto the final shortlist are being assessed by the validation panel this week and one week in June. The candidates will find out if they have been successful at the beginning of July.

The ICSL has determinedly avoided any suggestions that, as the only existing provider of the vocational course, it has in any way had a "free ride" in the validation process. Last week, staff were put through a dress rehearsal for the validation visit by a mock panel of two academics and a Law Society staff member.

As a response to the opening up of Bar training, the school is gaining greater independence from the Inns of Court and its present governing body, the Council for Legal Education (CLE), and becoming incorporated as a limited company and educational charity.

The CLE in turn becomes the Inns of Court and Bar Educational Trust and will help fund the provision of continuing education. Its old policy and regulatory role will be carried out by the Bar Council's education and training department.

John Taylor, currently secretary of the CLE, will become the school's secretary when it takes on its new independent status in July. He explained: "We are treating ourselves as if we are just another institution putting in a proposal - it shows the others we are not getting a free ride. We took note of the concerns raised in the past about the College of Law and its closeness to the Law Society as we are very keen to establish our independence."

The school has also become affiliated with City University in London, to benefit from its expertise and quality control procedures.

Mr Taylor was enthusiastic about the opening up of the Bar vocational course around the country. "The ICSL has enjoyed the role of monopoly deliverer of training for the Bar but that has become less and less appropriate - geographically, academically and because it inevitably limits numbers.

"Validation has been the real catalyst for change and will ensure everything is much more clearly defined in the future. I think generally the ending of the school's monopoly is a good thing. On academic grounds it is invigorating to have other people achieving the same academic standards.

"The Bar courses are also likely to have quite a close association with the legal practice courses for solicitors being run in the same institution. While I don't think people see an awful lot of joint training, it might be possible to have some combined exercises. We need to think about establishing a link with an institution running a legal practice course."

If the school is validated, the commercial realities of independence will inevitably direct its future. While it has agreed with the Inns of Court that it can keep its name, the school will no longer benefit from any subsidies.

This year, the school has more than 1,100 students spread around five buildings in central London. Mr Taylor said they proposed to cut the number of students to 750 - the other validated courses will cater for between 80 and 120 students each - and the number of buildings to three. There are also likely to be redundancies among the 90 staff, currently split between 50 on the academic side and 40 in administration.

The school's current turnover is about pounds 5m, but income will inevitably drop with the reduction in students.

Mr Taylor said: "As an educational charity, our aim is not to make a profit per se. But I am told it is good practice to aim for a 5 per cent surplus to help you through difficult years. Any profits we do make will be used to peg fee increases and invest in new resources."

Course fees have been climbing over the past few years, despite quite heavy subsidies from the Inns of Court. They will be pounds 5,720 for the 1996/97 course, up 10 per cent on the current year.

"There should not be an enormous leap when we become independent. Compared with other vocational courses and MBAs, the fees are not that high. However, the problem is that high fees limit the catchment of people coming on to the courses at the same time as the Bar is trying to widen the intake so it does not become just a rich person's profession," Mr Taylor said.

One area of concern is the virtual collapse in local authority discretionary grants for vocational courses. Five years ago, about 40 per cent to 50 per cent of the ICSL's students received grants, but that was now down to under 10 per cent. "I know that the authorities are strapped for cash but society does need well-trained lawyers,'' Mr Taylor said.

The extensive changes facing the school follow a tumultuous two years as it confronted fierce criticism over its selection process and over its record on ethnic minorities after it was found black students were three times as likely as whites to fail their Bar exams.

The Barrow inquiry report into racism at the school found ethnic minority students suffered a "collapse in confidence" while on the course and felt "isolated, inadequate and socially and financially handicapped".

While the inquiry said it found no evidence of direct or indirect discrimination at the school, it concluded the CLE had failed to meet the needs of ethnic minority students.

The CLE responded by making an extra pounds 500,000 available, hiring five more staff to improve tutor-student ratios and acquiring 20,000 sq ft of additional teaching space. It also drew up an agreement with the Commission for Racial Equality to monitor the course. While the situation has improved, a disparity in results remains.

Mr Taylor said: "Every year, Birkbeck College analyses the exam results. In raw terms, one still sees a significant disparity between white and ethnic minority students. But when you eliminate all the other variables, such as Oxbridge, class of degree and tutorials attended, the disparity between white and ethnic minority students' performance is less than 2 per cent."

Within months of the Barrow report, the school was again embroiled in a row over its selection process, intended to limit numbers to 800. Disgruntled students were preparing judicial reviews when the school made 250 extra places available.

"We always wanted to have about 800 students. A selection procedure was introduced to make overwhelming numbers of applicants manageable. But it proved a very painful business initially," Mr Taylor said with feeling.

"Assuming we are validated, it may be that we will not have many more students than our quota so we might not need such a comprehensive selection process. The question will also be, can we afford to do it to that level, and we cannot answer that yet."

For the students themselves, the main concern is that any increase in the number of students could increase the problems of finding pupillage.

Nina Matin, the 22-year-old president of the ICSL's Students' Association, has been given a pupillage at a London chambers. "You can see the argument that it is quite elitist only allowing a certain number of people onto the course. But if you cannot get into a career at the end of it, there is not a lot of point to it."