Levelling the Bar

Lord Neuberger speaks speaks exclusively to Lawyer 2Bs Nina Goswami about increasing access to the bar and diversity within it.

Levelling the BarEver-increasing debts for university students, the rising cost of the BVC and fierce competition at the junior bar have led to concerns that talented potential barristers are no longer considering the profession due to the sheer cost of it.

As fears continue to rise, the Bar Council has decided to tackle the problem head-on and has published an interim report that considers several proposals put forward by a working party led by Lord Justice Neuberger.

Neuberger, in an exclusive interview with Lawyer 2B, said that there is a perception among the less well off that the bar is a place for people from public school and Oxbridge. The UKs newest law lord said: The fact that the bar is a very competitive profession certainly doesnt mean that it should only recruit from the social or economic elite.

What were trying to achieve through the Entry to the Bar working party is to ensure that a career at the bar is a real possibility to anyone who has the inclination, intelligence, determination and the ability.

The need for more diversity at the bar doesnt mean were looking to avoid Oxbridge students. Both Oxford and Cambridge as universities ensure that they have diversity in their colleges. So a diverse pool from these colleges already exists.

If the profession is not open and seen to be so to the best people for the job, it will not survive.

Money is one of the main focuses of the working party. Neuberger said: The issue is to make sure that students are all put on a level playing field and funding is the largest factor causing the discrepancy.

The Bar Council is concerned that it is now harder to enter the bar because of the costs of university and bar training. Nearly one in three students arrive at the start of the BVC with debts of 20,000. The year-long BVC can add another 15,000 and non-law graduates have an extra year to fund on top of that.
Neuberger said: Cash is the biggest problem facing more potential barristers and one way the Bar Council is looking to solve this issue is to allow pupils to earn money during their pupillages outside the law.

So you could have pupils working behind a bar instead of at the bar, quipped the Lord.

At present around eight out of 10 barristers come from an upper middle class background and seven out of 10 in the major commercial barristers chambers went to public school or Oxbridge.

The working party was set up last November to look at access and diversity at the bar. Other proposals put forward by the group include recommendations that chambers should take on a specific number of paid pupillages and limit the number of places available on the BVC.

In the working partys interim report, published on 5 April, 24 proposals were put forward, of which Neuberger believes 17 must be investigated further due to their controversial nature.

Limited BVC places and specific numbers of paid pupillages fall into this category, along with the introduction of a voluntary aptitude test for students to ascertain the likelihood of obtaining pupillage. Another is the requirement for chambers to reveal the outcome of pupillage applications to education providers before students are required to commit and pay for the BVC.

Part-time pupillages, extending the part-time BVC, introducing an online version with the Open University and being allowed to work outside the law while on pupillage were among the other proposals mooted.

Less contentious are seven proposals that are already being implemented. These suggestions include the introduction of the bar loan scheme, which would be on preferential terms and would run alongside inns scholarships and awards schemes, which currently total a little less than 4m annually.

The Bar Council has also started promoting the profession at school level, sending barristers to talk about the virtues of the bar and making students aware that it is not just for an elite few.
Neuberger said: If the bar is to act properly in the interests of justice it needs to reflect the population that it represents. This means we need barristers from all walks of life.

We hope that our final recommendations, which come out at the end of this year, will allow for a level playing field so that anyone who has the talent can join the bar.