Legal Opinion: Is the training of barristers fit for purpose?

Learning the law is only part of what it takes to qualify as a barrister. Robert Verkaik, Law Editor, considers a forthcoming review of the system for training the modern advocate
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The Independent Online

It has been 16 years since the old Bar exams were swept away by a new vocational course designed to prepare aspiring barristers for the reality of a career as an advocate.

The traditional set of written papers based on black letter law were replaced with more practical tests such as opinion writing, advocacy and negotiating skills. At the same time, a multiple-choice exam identified those who didn't know their hearsay from their direct evidence.

Under the old system, hardly changed since Victorian times, wealth and privilege were the most important qualifications when it came to finding a job at the Bar. What emerged in the early 1990s was something much more suited to life in a set of chambers or a career in the Treasury Solicitors Office.

But now the Bar Vocational Course (BVC) is being exposed to the same kind of scrutiny that led to the replacement of the old Bar exams. Searching questions are being asked about its fitness for purpose in the training of barristers working in a modern Bar open to direct access and multiple disciplinary practices.

Under plans unveiled by the Bar Standards Board (BSB), which regulates 14,000 barristers in England and Wales, the aims and objectives of the only qualification for becoming a barrister are to undergo a "rigorous re-evaluation."

The review, to be led by Derek Wood QC, will make recommendations on future content, standard of entry, teaching standards, pass marks, assessment methods, cost, diversity and the transferability of the resulting qualification. It will be completed by early summer 2008.

Ruth Evans, BSB chair, says that it is important that the public can have confidence in the way barristers are trained. "Consumers need to know that barristers have received effective and relevant vocational training," she says.

At the same time, the profession needs a course which can be made accessible

to the talented, regardless of means or background. We know the current course arouses many, different, highly charged views. This review is a critical component of our work to ensure the Bar is of the highest quality and fit to serve the public interest and the interests of justice in the years ahead.

The "highly charged" views to which Ms Evans refers include concerns that the course has become too practical, so that pupil masters complain that young barristers do not have a firm grasp of the basic rules of evidence or procedure. Others argue that advocacy and negotiation is better taught in the white heat of pupillage rather than in the laboratory conditions of a classroom.

Derek Wood's review will dovetail with another major review being undertaken by Lord Justice Neuberger, who is considering how the Bar can attract more students from different and disadvantaged backgrounds.

One of the key questions that needs addressing is the mismatch between the large numbers of students attaining the BVC qualification and the much smaller group who go on to secure places in chambers.

While some students embark on the course with their eyes open, so that they know pupillage places, and ultimately tenancies, are hard to come by, many do not. With fees as much as £13,000 for the BVC, training for the Bar represents a huge investment for students who may already be shouldering debt from university.

It is vital that once a student has passed the modern Bar exam he or she can be confident that the selection process for pupillage is as fair and transparent as it can be.