Job-seekers put to test in chambers challenge: Trainee barristers seeking entry to one of Britain's most radical practices face a rigorous examination. Marianne Macdonald reports

IT IS shabby, wedged beside Osh Gosh Leatherwear and has a vociferous troop of mice under its floorboards. But Bethnal Green Barristers Chambers is one of Britain's most radical legal-aid practices and its traineeships are keenly sought after.

The east London practice prides itself on defence work for the underprivileged: ripped-off tenants, victims of racism, beaten-up wives. It is fiercely committed to equal opportunities and deeply opposed to discrimination.

But being high-minded brings its problems. Over the last two months the set of nine tenants has had to apply its principles to itself after advertising two pupillages - six-month traineeships that may lead to a 'tenancy', or permanent position - and receiving a record number of applications.

It has become obvious that there are not enough pupillages to go round. The Bar school has become so oversubscribed that, from 1994, graduates with a second- or first-class degree, even from Oxbridge, cannot be sure of a place. This year about two-thirds of those who applied were given a pupillage. Those 750 soon face another scramble: only about half will get tenancy.

For Bethnal Green the selection process was poignant as 60 candidates applied, many with little hope of a job elsewhere because of physical handicap, politics, colour, sexual orientation or age. The chambers believes it is the only one that refuses to accept curricula vitae, and instead issues an application form to eliminate bias.

On 8 February, at its first discussion, the selection committee - Tahera Ladak, Peter Hall, Jayne Harrill and Abida Huda - admit to considering only left-wing candidates. After all, Mr Hall points out, some chambers only take graduates from certain Oxbridge colleges.

One Oxbridge applicant, with an upper-second degree, is discussed. She has fallen down on an open-ended question which asked 'reasons for applying to these chambers'. She wrote: 'I intend to practise both criminal and civil law with an emphasis on civil liberties. I believe chambers would give me good training in these areas. I would like to work in chambers outside the Inns of Court. I would be happy to supply further reasons if required.' All shake their heads.

Another candidate with a history of legal-aid work and helping the homeless is, according to Mr Hall, a 'Florence Nightingale application, a privileged background stepping down to help the poor'.

He explains: 'His reasons for applying are cobbled together from the handbook. This is someone who has the resources, but not the feeling.' Others disagree. Ms Harrill, who strives to see the good in everyone, says: 'I think he has done some interesting legal representation work for the prisoners on death row.' Mr Hall, who does not, replies: 'That is interesting, but you need access to resources to go off and do that.'

Ms Ladak says: 'But if you're looking at voluntary work as a criterion, you can't criticise someone with the resources to do it.' Mr Hall inquires what school the applicant went to: a grammar. He is rejected.

Of another borderline candidate, Ms Ladak says: 'I was impressed with his work with the homeless, although it was while he was a student. But I think the reasons for applying are all 'me'.'

She quotes from the application form: ' 'Yours is a progressive set of chambers in your own words acting on the side of the powerless against the powerful' . . . Then he says he would greatly appreciate working in a set of chambers outside the glass-bead game,' she concludes, outraged. Others find his handwriting hard to decipher. He gets an interview, nevertheless.

The last borderline candidate is given a tough time. Mr Hall observes loftily: 'He has put extensive reasons for applying here which, while superficially detailed, appear to me little more than pure sophistry.' His colleagues demand to know what sophistry means, which puts him on the spot. He adds: 'He said at one point 'cornerstone of my personal philosophy' '.

The applicant, who has shot himself in the foot by tacking on an extra page of reasons for applying to the chambers, has worked for Nacro - which helps ex-offenders - meals on wheels, Crisis at Christmas. Mr Hall says: 'The more I read of his reasons, the more he lost me.' Ms Ladak replies: 'I think we are hard-pressed to turn him down because he wrote extra.' He also goes through.

On 6 and 7 March, the first interviews are held. Ms Harrill, Ms Ladak, Khatun Sapnara, Edward Fitzpatrick, Eamonn Sherry and Christopher Williams race through 15 interviews in one weekend.

By Sunday afternoon the tenants, showing signs of wear, begin shortlisting for second interviews. Olu Boto, a graduate from Nigeria and a former laboratory technician, has made a good impression. Mr Fitzpatrick thinks he asked direct questions. Ms Sapnara is concerned that he was not articulate. Ms Ladak says six interviewers can be intimidating. He gets another interview.

Kevin Gannon, who went to a London polytechnic and has represented clients at more than a hundred social security tribunals, has also done 'quite extraordinarily well', Mr Fitzpatrick says. All are impressed with his articulacy, although Mr Hall objects to him as 'white, heterosexual and middle-class'.

Peter Katz, who was educated at public school, Manchester University and Italy, is rejected for being inarticulate and flippant.

Janet Fields, a lesbian in her thirties, discussed her sexuality but is thought not to have coherent politics. Mr Sherry observes: 'She said she wouldn't represent rapists.' Mr Fitzpatrick says: 'She said she wouldn't represent men who beat up their wives either.' Mr Sherry says: 'For quite a lot of the interview she wasn't looking at anybody.' Mr Fitzpatrick says: 'She was coherent at the start, then she began waffling.' She is rejected.

All warmed to Tom Riley, an Irish ex-headmaster in his fifties with a PhD in criminology. Ms Sapnara says: 'Given his age and background he was remarkably open-minded.' He is shortlisted, along with Sharon Momawni, a young black woman from north London.

Paula Hampton, who is blind and took her Common Professional Examinations at Manchester Polytechnic, loses ground by saying she might vote Green or for the Liberal Democrats. Ms Ladak thinks she is a 'wishy-washy liberal'. Ms Sapnara finds her a bit 'airy-fairy'. Her blindness is not mentioned. Taken up on this, the tenants point out that she has a guide dog.

Questions at the second interviews, on 26 and 27 March, are markedly tougher and include preferred changes to the legal system - to legal aid, wigs and so on; response on being asked to represent a landlord; how to deal with a woman pulling out of a domestic violence suit; the legal basis for the right to silence and the political motivation for removing it.

Discussions reveal that Kevin Gannon and Tom Riley are pulling ahead, with Olu Boto and Sharon Momawni least favoured. This presents a dilemma because the first two are white and middle-class, and the others are not. The set is torn between positive discrimination and an urge to take the best.

Mr Hall says of Mr Gannon: 'There was a strong liberal tendency in his answers which could have been got from a textbook.' He and Ms Harrill worry about how he would deal with clients. Mr Sherry says: 'But overall he was immensely articulate.' Mr Fitzpatrick agrees: 'We're nailing him because he's widely read.' Mr Hall says: 'There's a difference between drawing from experience and regurgitating what you've learnt.'

Meanwhile, the lawyers have been charmed again by Mr Riley. But Ms Harrill says his response to the legal-aid changes - where he expressed concern for the Bar, not the clients - 'sunk him for me'. Ms Huda thinks he assumed that went without saying. They wonder if he could cope with a tough judge. They do not mention age again.

They do, however, when talking about Sharon Momawni. 'But do we think she has potential, given her lack of maturity and her working-class background?' Ms Harrill asks. 'Whatever her potential, she falls below the standards of at least three other candidates,' Mr Sherry replies. Mr Hall notes a 'lack of order in her thoughts'. Ms Harrill thinks this could develop. But Mr Hall says flatly: 'If she was representing us in court tomorrow, I would be worried.'

Of Olu Boto, Mr Hall says it is unacceptable that he does not support a merger between barristers and solicitors; Mr Fitzpatrick thought his asking whether they would choose him at the end of the interview let him down. But the mood imperceptibly swings in his favour. Finally, he and Mr Gannon are chosen. Mr Boto rejects the pupillage; Mr Gannon accepts.

I say to Mr Hall on the telephone: 'So, you got the one you called white, middle-class and heterosexual?' Mr Hall pauses cautiously. 'I may have made some such wild allegation,' he says. He has the grace to sound embarrassed.

The names of unsuccessful applicants have been changed.

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Lucerne’s Hotel Château Gütsch, one of the lots in our Homeless Veterans appeal charity auction
charity appeal
Arts and Entertainment
Tony Hughes (James Nesbitt) after his son Olly disappeared on a family holiday in France

Jo from Northern Ireland was less than impressed by Russell Brand's attempt to stage a publicity stunt

Scunthorpe goalkeeper Sam Slocombe (left) is congratulated by winning penalty taker Miguel Llera (right)
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
The Apprentice candidates Roisin Hogan, Solomon Akhtar, Mark Wright, Bianca Miller, Daniel Lassman
tvReview: But which contestants got the boot?
Life and Style
A woman walks by a pandal art installation entitled 'Mars Mission' with the figure of an astronaut during the Durga Puja festival in Calcutta, India
techHow we’ll investigate the existence of, and maybe move in with, our alien neighbours
Arts and Entertainment
Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels ride again in Dumb and Dumber To
filmReview: Dumb And Dumber To was a really stupid idea
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Ian McKellen tempts the Cookie Monster
tvSir Ian McKellen joins the Cookie Monster for a lesson on temptation
Tourists bask in the sun beneath the skyscrapers of Dubai
travelBritish embassy uses social media campaign to issue travel advice for festive holiday-makers in UAE
Arts and Entertainment
Jennifer Saunders stars as Miss Windsor, Dennis's hysterical French teacher
filmJennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress
Life and Style
Nabil Bentaleb (centre) celebrates putting Tottenham ahead
footballTottenham 4 Newcastle 0: Spurs fans dreaming of Wembley final after dominant win
Jimmy Mubenga died after being restrained on an aircraft by G4S escorts
voicesJonathan Cox: Tragedy of Jimmy Mubenga highlights lack of dignity shown to migrants
Life and Style
Sebastian Siemiatkowski is the 33-year-old co-founder and CEO of Klarna, which provides a simple way for people to buy things online
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established media firm based in Surrey is ...

Ashdown Group: Java Developer - Hertfordshire - £47,000 + bonus + benefits

£40000 - £470000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: Java Developer / J2EE Devel...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive - Nationwide - OTE £65,000

£30000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This small technology business ...

Day In a Page

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
10 best high-end laptops

10 best high-end laptops

From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

Meet Racton Man

Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

Garden Bridge

St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

Joint Enterprise

The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

Freud and Eros

Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum