World grows harsher for would-be black barristers

As the Lord Chancellor examines a courtroom race row, lawyers blame prejudice for Bar exam failures
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Urgent action to stamp out discrimination against aspiring black barristers was called for yesterday in the wake of a sharp increase in the failure rate of the Bar examination.

In an analysis of pass rates over the past four years, the Society of Black Lawyers said the disparity between blacks and whites represented "an appalling level of unequal treatment". Latest figures for the Bar's "clearing-house" scheme, for matching would-be pupil barristers to chambers, likewise showed a pattern of continuing racial discrimination, the society said.

A breakdown of pass rates at the Inns of Court School of Law - until this autumn the monopoly provider of the Bar finals course - shows failure rates for ethnic-minority students of 29.9 per cent in 1992-93, 20.4 in 1993, 25.4 in 1994-95 and 42.1 in 1995-96.

While the failure rate for white candidates also almost doubled from 10.2 per cent in 1994-95 to 18.9 per cent in 1995-96, Peter Herbert, the society's chairman, said: "This has a far more dramatic effect on black students because we haven't got the numbers there ... " Following the damning 1994 Barrow report into racism at the school, which found ethnic-minority students felt "isolated, inadequate and socially and financially handicapped", the former governing body, the Council for Legal Education, promised to make an extra pounds 500,000 available, improve tutor-student ratios and provide extra teaching space. Mr Herbert said black students had been receiving less favourable treatment in terms of the provision of any extra help that might be needed, contributing to loss of morale. He suspected examiners expected answers that could favour candidates whose first language was English, while black students continued to believe they were identifiable to markers despite an anonymous numbering system. Ethnic-minority students were also likely to suffer in oral tests, where marking was subjective. The Bar's clearing-house scheme for pupillages, which places almost 70 per cent of pupil barristers, showed a pattern of continuing racial discrimination at the Bar, Mr Herbert said. For 1995-96 there were 1,378 applications from whites, who secured 839 offers, accepting a total of 447. Asians made 143 applications, secured 57 offers and accepted 35. For those of African or Caribbean origin, 97 applications produced 21 offers, of which 15 were accepted. The society has called on the Bar Council to make equality of treatment a priority for the coming year.

The chairman of the council's race-relations committee, Lincoln Crawford, who is black, said: "I am absolutely determined to get to the heart of this. The Barrow inquiry found no firm evidence of discrimination, but nothing has changed."