Black Bar students penalised by race bias: Inquiry finds discrimination by barristers is key factor affecting differential failure rate in examinations. Jason Bennetto reports

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The Independent Online
RACIAL discrimination by barristers is a key factor in the high failure rate among black students trying to qualify for the Bar, an independent inquiry suggested yesterday.

The Bar school, which is based in London, was also criticised for having failed the needs of ethnic minority students and providing substandard facilities.

The Barrow inquiry was set up a year ago after it was found that black and ethnic minority students were three times as likely as whites to fail their Bar exams.

The report, by a committee funded by the Council for Legal Education which runs the Bar school, found that 71 per cent of white students secured a pupillage with a barristers' chambers, compared with 48 per cent of ethnic minority students.

It said that the difference could not be explained by academic achievement alone and that there appeared to be racial discrimination involved. The type of school and higher education institution they attended were also cited as important influences on which students were chosen.

The committee found that there was a 'significant link' between the success of pupils in gaining a place in barristers' chambers under the tuition of a senior barrister, and their ultimate success on the Bar vocational course.

This was explained by the level of confidence and security it gave the students. They concluded that 'discrimination by chambers in selecting pupils could be a partial cause for the racial disparity in success/failure rates'.

The students of the Inns of Court School of Law obtain year-long pupillages from the 450 chambers country-wide, after being interviewed by a panel of barristers.

The committee, headed by Dame Jocelyn Barrow, said that it 'found no evidence of direct or indirect discrimination as defined by the Race Relations Act' in the examination system. It did, however, find evidence that lecturers, in order to avoid confrontations, were giving good marks to black students and then lowering the grades at the final results, but there was no proof that this was based on any but academic achievement.

About 1,000 students took the final examination in 1992 and about one-sixth belonged to the black and ethnic minority group. About 45 per cent failed the course, compared to 16 per cent of the white students. The difference in 1993 - the group questioned in the study - was less but still significant.

The report also found that more black people had to work during their holidays to fund themselves, which meant that they were more likely to fail their final examinations, David Smith, one of the committee members, said.

Yesterday, the Society of Black Lawyers condemned the inquiry's findings as a 'whitewash' and questioned the independence of the committee, an allegation rejected by the inquiry committee. The report emphasised that possible discrimination was not the only factor contributing to a lower success rate by ethnic minority students, and pointed out that they generally had a lower record of academic achievement than their white counterparts when they embarked on the Bar Vocational Course.

The report recommends a series of reforms, including clearer pass and fail criteria in the exams, the introduction of external examiners and double marking of papers, and the appointment of an equal opportunities officer by the Council for Legal Education. It also calls for another Bar school to be set up to end the monopoly held by the Council of Legal Training.

Dame Jocelyn said that the report should be seen as part of a 'concerted and co-ordinated strategy' to widen access to the Bar.

'We recognise that these institutions are making substantial efforts to improve the experience of students at the school. I hope that we will be seen to have played a part in assisting the legal profession in meeting the challenges of a multi- ethnic society.'

She said that funding for the school needed to be increased to improve its facilities, including a library.

Fees, currently pounds 3,900 for the year-long vocational course, should also be raised, with proper subsidies for students based on need rather than merit.

Grace Higgins, a mature student who failed the course in 1991 and also failed the re-sits the following year, said that the inquiry's recommendations on examinations were merely the minimum requirements for any professional educational establishment.

The Council for Legal Education meets next week to consider the report and intends publishing a list of measures to help ethnic minority students.

The Bar Council, which represents barristers, said that it was 'concerned' about the findings but pointed out that it now had a new equality code for chambers.

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