Legal profession 'discriminates against working-class students'

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Bright, working-class students who want to become barristers are losing out to public school candidates because of an emphasis on snob value, the new leader of the Bar has claimed.

Geoffrey Vos, QC, the son of a Bermondsey leather merchant, said that too often a posh accent was mistaken for intellect when recruiting to the Bar.

His comments echo growing concern that the Bar is still dominated by privately educated lawyers from wealthy backgrounds who can afford to shoulder the £30,000 debts needed to become a barrister.

Similar worries have been voiced by Cherie Booth, QC, who came from a working-class family in Liverpool, and said last year that she would probably have ended up a shop girl if she had been educated today. The latest figures suggest that almost 70 per cent of barristers are privately educated.

Mr Vos said he was particularly concerned that too many graduates from ordinary backgrounds were being overlooked in favour of those from a "snobby" background. "People from a privileged background are sometimes recruited even though they are not up to the job intellectually," he said. As leader of the Bar, he hoped to bring in changes to make it easier for people from less-privileged backgrounds.

One idea being considered is to extend the Inns of Court funding, worth £5m a year, by bringing in a loans-based system.

But previous attempts to help less-well-off students enter the Bar have failed. The most recent was a proposal to levy a contribution from all chambers to finance poorer candidates while they were training. The scheme was withdrawn when the wealthier chambers objected to paying more than others.

Mr Vos wants to build on the progress made by his predecessors, such as Stephen Hockman, QC, and Guy Mansfield, QC, who also explored ways of tackling the problem of funding.

Mr Vos, who went to University College School, then Cambridge, said: "What we need to get across is that you do not need to be from a privileged background to succeed at the Bar. People who come from higher social backgrounds have a higher social 'gloss' which can sometimes be a substitute for intellect. We have a problem that people who may not be the highest academic achievers, who may not be the people with the greatest intellect or insight into a legal problem, but are able to present better than someone else, will get a job above someone with a better intellect who comes from a lower social background.

"We need people of the highest intellectual ability and, frankly, that is more important than the glossy exterior.

"The problem is the available pool of candidates. If you have 10 applicants who all come from a snobby background then, of course, you are going to take a new barrister from a snobby background. The key is finding ways of expanding that available pool."

Candidates for the Bar Vocational Course - costing £8,000 to £12,000 to complete - often get "completely missed" by grant-awarding authorities if they are from a less-privileged background, he said.

Commenting on the Bar's current image Mr Vos said: "The fact that we operate in these beautiful surroundings - in acres of listed buildings in central London - is our biggest handicap. We would have much less trouble with public perception if we moved the Bar to Streatham".