Bar Councils deferral of call outrages law schools

The Bar Councils proposal to withhold the barrister title until after pupillage has sparked fears that increasing numbers
will shun the profession, making it even less representative than it already is.

Bar Councils deferral of call outrages law schoolsLAST month, the Bar Council passed a resolution deferring call until after completion of six months of pupillage, sparking outcry from many law schools.

Currently, anyone who has passed their Bar Vocational Course (BVC) exams can hold themselves out as barristers, meaning that when they start pupillage they can attract work on the back of the barrister title. Those who dont make it to pupillage can still benefit from the title when applying for posts elsewhere in the legal profession or in other careers.

Both advantages will disappear when deferral of call is introduced in 2008. According to some law schools, it will put off many students from seeking to become barristers a worrying outcome for a profession already concerned about the increasing number of BVC-qualified students turning to the solicitor profession.

Increasing numbers of students are saying there is no point in becoming a barrister when you can become a solicitor and get higher rights of audience, said BPP chairman Carl Lygo.

However, the Bar Council believes none of this should get in the way of the one overriding reason for deferral equality.

Solicitors, it points out, are given the title only when they have completed their initial undergraduate law and legal practice courses (LPC) as well as two years in a firm as a trainee. Barristers, on the other hand, can call themselves barristers once they have finished their studies. This point is central to the Bar Councils consultation paper on deferral, which reads: The bar is one of the few professions which confers its titles upon persons before they have completed the training required to practice.

However, in staking this claim, the Bar Council appears to have omitted a key point that the Law Society is considering bringing solicitors in line with the current Bar Council position and allowing trainees their title once they have passed their LPC.

The Bar Council points instead to a separate practical problem associated with calling students barristers straight after their BVC exams. According to Michael Brindle QC, chairman of the Bar Councils education and training committee, members of the public sometimes mistake counsel in their first six months of pupillage for being fully fledged barristers.

A man who calls himself a barrister sounds like he is fully trained, but in actual fact he hasnt done his pupillage, said Brindle. Surely the person instructing him ought to know whether he has done all he needs to do to be a fully fledged barrister.

The Bar Council also has the support of regulators, according to Brindle. While he would not comment on which ones, it is likely that they include the Office of Fair Trading, which is looking to eradicate alleged inequalities in the barrrister profession. Those [regulators] looking at the issue have seen this as an oddity, he says.

Lygo says that while he could see the fairness of [the bars] point of view, like several other law school heads, he believes the real reason is the Bar Councils desire to drive down the number of students applying to become barristers. If this is the case and it was denied by the Bar Council then the council has a point.

Chambers are massively oversubscribed, with some top 30 sets reporting around 800 pupillage applications for just a handful of places.

The reality, however, is that the move is unlikely to lead to a significant decline in applicants. A survey conducted by BPP Law School of its BVC students shows that just 9 per cent of students say they would not do the BVC if they were not awarded the barrister title afterwards.

That hardly amounts to a flood of students avoiding the bar. Students who apply to the bar, it seems, tend to have a burning ambition overriding other concerns, a point that is made by Nottingham Law School BVC director James Wakefield. I dont think students should choose to do a bar course simply to get a title, he said. They need to have more strongly held and deep-seated ambitions.

Those with more reason for finding the bar less attractive are overseas students. In the BPP survey, 16 per cent said they would not do the BVC after the deferral of call changes are introduced. The main reason is that in some overseas jurisdictions, BVC students are able to practise in their home countries once they have completed their college exams. To counter this, the Inns of Court School of Law dean Adrian Keane has called for special provisions to be made to enable them to be called without completing pupillage.

The diversity of the profession may also be affected, said BPP chief executive Peter Crisp. The expensive course fees, combined with the deferral of call, could deter pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, he says.

Combine this with the loss of the important advantages from obtaining the barrister title at the start of pupillage particularly giving access to work which may be denied otherwise and the impact is likely to hit hard.

The fact that the Bar Councils initiative coincides with the Law Societys consideration of a move run on the ticket of increased fairness for students to allow their students the right to call themselves solicitors once they have passed their LPC, merely rubs salt into the wound.