Universities 'outraged' by Bar school selection: Rejected students to take court action over 'discriminatory' procedure

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THE SCHOOL for trainee barristers has come under an unprecedented attack from university law departments and students, who have accused it of operating a 'discriminatory' and 'outrageous' selection procedure.

Three law students who have had their applications rejected by the Bar school will apply today for a judicial review of their cases at the High Court. A further 34 are preparing to take action.

The outcry has been caused by a new entrance system to the one-year course at the Inns of Court School of Law, which all students must complete before entering the Bar. The solicitor representing the three students yesterday described the selection procedure as a 'dog's breakfast, designed to upset everyone'.

Heads of university law departments in England and Wales have written to the school expressing their outrage and concern, with at least one professor threatening to withdraw support from the Bar.

The new system, which was devised at a cost of pounds 250,000 to cope with an increase in applications and decrease in available places, resulted in 880 out of 2,400 law students being offered a place. Five hundred unsuccessful students have appealed.

The main complaint is that the Bar school now ignores the class of degree a student obtains - some of the failed applicants have first-class passes and scholarships - and instead bases its offers on their average A-level results. This discriminates against mature students who may have been offered places on vocational experience. Others argue that A-level results are no- longer relevant.

There is also criticism that the school only requires an average grade - set at just above a C - so that someone who has obtained two B and two E passes would fail, but a student with a single B pass would succeed. The former selection system for the course was based on degree results, but the school argues that too many people obtain high-class degrees and that they are not a good indicator of who will do well on the course.

Professor Michael Slade, head of the law school at the University of London, wrote to the Council of Legal Education, which runs the Bar school, and said: 'There is concern bordering on outrage among both staff and students. There does seem to have been the most obvious form of discrimination.'

Professor Martin Dockray, head of the law department at City University, London, said the new procedure had caused 'widespread anxiety and resentment . . . the department has learned with astonishment and dismay that the selection process has resulted in the rejection of outstanding candidates'.

Professor Richard de Friend, Pro Vice-chancellor of the University of Kent, warned that if the selection procedure continued, 'there will be a general withdrawal of goodwill towards the Bar among academics like myself'.

The Council of Legal Education said the new system was fair, but it was examining the selection procedure. If the procedure is declared unlawful, the CLE could be forced to take dozens, perhaps hundreds, of extra students on the course, which starts in October, or scrap the system and reassess all applications.

There is growing pressure to break the CLE's monopoly and establish other schools. Last month, the Lord Chancellor's advisory committee on education and conduct recommended common training for solicitors and barristers.