Becoming equal in the eyes of the law

Ensuring talented students can secure a career as a barrister, regardless of their background, is a key goal of the Bar Council, writes Stephen Hockman QC
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The Independent Online

Barristers are specialist legal advisers and court room advocates. They are independent and objective and trained to advise clients on the weaknesses as well as the strengths of their case. Indeed, such is their specialist knowledge and experience in and out of court that it can make a substantial difference to the outcome of a case; most legal cases need a variety of different skills. Solicitors will generally deal with the day-to-day preparation of cases and documents. They involve barristers when they need specialist advice about a particular area of law, to draft documents or for advocacy (presenting a case in court).

The roles of the barrister and of the solicitor are distinctive and separate, and do not lead to duplication. What's more, by consulting a barrister, the client will have access to an independent second opinion.

Most barristers work as self-employed practitioners, undertaking work that has been referred to them by a solicitor. However, about 3,000 barristers are in employed practice, working in a range of organisations including the Government Legal Service, the Crown Prosecution Service, industry, commerce and the armed forces. The type of work they do will depend on the employer, but will require the same ability to offer specialised legal advice and advocacy.

To qualify as a barrister there are three main stages to be completed. The academic stage - the first stage of training for the Bar - usually consists of a qualifying law degree, or a degree in another subject, supplemented by the Common Professional Examination (CPE) or an approved Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) course. This stage is designed to ensure that you have a basic body of legal knowledge, which can be assumed and built upon at the vocational stage.

The vocational stage will usually take the form of the BVC (Bar Vocational Course). The purpose of the vocational stage is to ensure that students intending to become barristers acquire the skills, knowledge of procedure and evidence, attitudes and competence to prepare them for the more specialised training in the 12 months of pupillage which follow.

Pupillage is the final stage of the route to qualification at the Bar, in which the pupil gains practical training under the supervision of an experienced barrister. Pupillage is divided into two parts: in the first six months, pupils shadow their approved pupil supervisor and in the second six months - depending on their chambers and with their approved pupil supervisor's permission - they can undertake to supply legal services and exercise rights of audience.

Obtaining a pupillage is probably the most difficult aspect of becoming a barrister. Demand for a career at the Bar far outstrips the number of places available, such is its popularity as a vocation.

It is not possible to obtain a pupillage as a "favour". Pupils are recruited via an official recruitment process, modelled on the UCAS system. It is a very competitive process and as a result, many aspiring barristers are unable to pursue a career at the Bar.

It is well known that many students emerge from university carrying debts. The Bar Council is concerned that this may prevent able, but less well-off students from pursuing their chosen vocation as a barrister. In a recent survey of Bar students, 30 per cent of the respondents stated that their level of debt is at least £20,000.

Banks make loans available on a generous basis in many cases, particularly to those who have obtained pupillage. The Inns of Court contribute about £3.5m per annum in scholarships, many of which are means-tested. Most of this money is directed at the BVC year. Chambers also fund their pupils, but many cannot afford more than the required minimum of £10,000 per annum.

The composition of the Bar reflects that of the wider working population. Roughly a third of our membership are women (and more than half at entry level). Roughly 11 per cent (and nearer 20 per cent at entry) are black and minority ethnic (compared with a national population percentage of about 8 per cent). 63 per cent of Bar students attended state schools, and only 14 per cent had attended either Oxford or Cambridge universities.

The profession is steadily becoming increasingly reflective of the society it serves. However, the Bar Council remains concerned that resources, or lack of them, could hinder this important shift in our profession.

Indeed, in our present society, it is unacceptable for the Bar to be or to be perceived as elitist and exclusive. The best way to change any such perception is to ensure that talented applicants from all backgrounds are able to become barristers, and are not deterred from doing so by lack of means. This is an issue that our profession has wrestled with for over a decade, and successive Bar Council initiatives on funding, the availability of courses and applications handling have sought to address this.

We now want to see a steep change on the question of access, to ensure we have a profession open to all talented individuals, regardless of background.

A working group is therefore being established, comprising representatives from the Bar Council, from the four Inns of Court and from the educational sector, charged with developing proposals to improve funding for new entrants to the profession, and to reduce any remaining barriers to entry for minority and disadvantaged students.

The working group will specifically consider the possible co-ordination of Bar Council and Inns of Court student funding arrangements, with a view to examining whether BVC students can obtain a mixture of grants and loans, depending on ability and means. It will also examine the possible use of an existing student loan company to develop or participate in such a funding programme, funding arrangements for pupillage. The feasibility of guaranteed income schemes (or concessions in relation to chambers' expenses) for the first years of practice will be considered, as will measures to reduce barriers to entry generally.

The profile of the Bar has been transformed in recent years. But there is more to do, and we are determined to eliminate all artificial barriers inhibiting entry to the profession. Perception and reality must be brought into line.