Leading Article: Equal opportunities in barrister training

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APPEARING in court is intimidating enough for most people. For a black or Asian Briton, faced with a roomful of what look like white male Oxbridge graduates, it can be nightmarish. That is why the difficulties experienced by members of ethnic minorities in becoming barristers are so worrying, and why the Council for Legal Education was right to commission yesterday's report on equal opportunities in the training of barristers.

It was a relief to discover that the committee failed to find any evidence of direct or indirect discrimination by those whose job it is to teach law to aspiring barristers and to mark their exam papers. But the committee did identify three features of barristers' training that are unfriendly to ethnic-minority trainees.

One is the crusty atmosphere of the Inns of Court, notably in the old-fashioned formal dinners that students are required to attend and pay for. The committee observed that the emphasis on 'chapel, grace and drinks', not to mention red meat and etiquette, may put off many non-whites.

More important was the committee's conclusion that the year-long Bar Vocational Course, which must be passed before one can become a pupil in legal chambers, leaves students too much to sink or swim on their own - and its view that the process of gaining a six-month pupillage in good chambers, which is itself one of the most important ways of becoming a barrister in a prestigious set, is too opaque and too dependent on old-boy networks.

The committee was wise not to be too specific about reforming the dining system, since hasty modifications could make it harder, rather than easier, for black and Asian law students to fraternise with the senior barristers who might later give them jobs. But it produced a compelling list of changes to the course itself, ranging from an automatic right to resit to the hiring of remedial skills instructors and the installation of a creche. These will make the course less daunting to the under-achievers, among whom minorities are over-represented.

The task now facing the Bar Council is to bring about radical change in the way chambers choose their pupils. The current free-for-all, which puts Oxbridge graduates with connections at an advantage, should be replaced with a more formal system, modelled on the UCCA university entrance system, which gives everyone a fair crack at the vacancies. Elite chambers will hate the idea, for it will make it harder for them to cream off the best pupils. But if justice is to be universal, it must draw its practitioners from all groups in society.