Unequal before the law: With few exceptions, the legal profession remains obdurately white and middle class, says Adam Sage

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The Independent Online
THERE have been many wise words and pious hopes expressed by those who would like to end white, male, middle-class dominance of the legal profession. But, according to students who want to become lawyers, the barriers remain as high as ever, the need for wealthy parents as vital as ever. Both the Bar Council, representing barristers, and the Law Society, representing solicitors, are struggling to rebut complaints of bias in the way they select members.

Leaders of the Bar were profoundly disturbed by the recent report from the Council of Legal Education, showing that students from ethnic minorities taking a key vocational course achieve worse results than their white counterparts. Almost 45 per cent of ethnic minority students failed the course, compared with 16 per cent of white students, the report said. And this could not be explained by claims that black candidates were generally less well qualified. Among students with lower- second class degrees, 52 per cent of those from ethnic minorities failed, more than double the proportion of white candidates.

However, Christopher Dewberry, an occupational psychologist at Birkbeck College, London, who was responsible for producing the report, said overt racism by examiners was unlikely to be behind the disparity and called for further investigation. Although this has now been ordered by the Council of Legal Education, which runs the course in question, many black lawyers say they are sceptical about whether the inquiry is likely to get near to the truth.

The Law Society is facing different, yet related accusations. Black students say that even when they pass the vocational course, they are not given jobs by law firms. They point to figures showing that just over 1 per cent of the 57,167 solicitors in England and Wales are from ethnic minorities. Ethnic minorities represent 5.5 per cent of the population.

Last year, a study by the Society of Black Lawyers showed that black university graduates were rejected an average of 36 times before finding work, while white graduates were turned down nine times on average. In an attempt to improve these figures, the Law Society proposed that all law firms should be required to adopt an equal-opportunities policy, committing themselves to try and recruit 10 per cent of their trainees from ethnic minorities. Although the proposals have met with hostility from the profession, they are likely to be imposed by the society.

Yet even if the Law Society and Bar Council can deal with the claims of bias, many observers believe the legal world will still be barred to anyone from a poor background, as a result of financial restrictions in higher education. According to the College of Law, the biggest institution running the Law Society's finals course, the number of its students receiving local authority grants has dropped dramatically in the past four years. In 1989/90, 64 per cent of the college's income came from grants; by 1992/93 this had fallen to 24 per cent.

Trainee solicitors say that loans, promoted by the Government as a way of financing higher education, rarely fund the entire cost of the fees, which can run to pounds 5,000 a year, as well as covering living expenses of pounds 3,500. This leaves part-time work or parents as the only sources of help. A report by the college shows that almost three-quarters of its students are supported by their parents, an overwhelming majority of whom are middle class.

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