Will top-up fees call time on open access to the Bar?

As the Government pushes to extend tuition fees, Jennifer Currie investigates how accessibility to the Bar could be increased

PAYING for your legal education and training will not be easy if the Government pushes ahead with its plans to charge top-up fees.

Faced with an undergraduate debt of potentially 25,000, what right-minded individual would go on to blow another nine grand on tuition fees for the Legal Practice Course (LPC) or the Bar Vocational Course (BVC)?

It’s a bit easier for many wannabe solicitors, of course, as firms of lawyers are long accustomed to stumping up for tuition fees and living expenses – but the Bar is a different kettle of fish altogether.

Barristers are self-employed individuals who share the rent on a building – they are referred to as tenants, after all. So it’s not as straightforward for sets of chambers to fork out cash to prospective pupils.

Unfortunately, this can, and does, mean that the Bar is often seen as the preserve of those who can afford it – a situation that many fear will be exacerbated if top-up fees are introduced.

The issue of widening access to the Bar and its direct link to funding is a problem that the Bar Council has been grappling with for a long time.

Last year, Sir Robin Mountfield was asked to investigate the thorny issue of student debt and the impact it has on access to the Bar.

Unsurprisingly, his report concluded that the prospect of yet more debt was a disincentive to students – particularly those from poorer backgrounds – and Mountfield recommended that well-off barristers should dig deep into their welllined pockets and contribute to the creation of 400 bursaries a year.

Yet these plans were slashed after barristers moaned that they should not have to support someone who would probably not be joining their set after the BVC year was over.

As Lawyer 2B reported in its February issue, another task force has been appointed to take a second look at the problems surrounding entry to the Bar. Chaired by the Director of Public Prosecutions Sir David Calvert-Smith the committee recently issued a set of discussion papers to “provoke debate and discussion within the Bar’; according to Nigel Bastin, head of education and training at the Bar Council.

So what morsels will barristers be chewing over from now until the summer when the task force reports back? Will life get any easier for students interested in a career at the Bar?

Under one proposal, sets would pay the tuition fees for students on the BVC course, just as solicitors’ firms often pay for their trainees to sit the LPC. Many of the bigger chambers already allow prospective

pupils to ‘draw down’ part of their pupillage award during their BVC year, but this can only happen in sets that compete with City firms and recruit pupils during their final year at university. Few others recruit early at present, but this is something the Bar Council would like to encourage.

Another suggestion is to change the structure of the BVC in a bid to reduce its overall cost. Options could include sandwiching the BVC with the pupillage stage, or shortening the course by eight weeks, even merging the LPC and BVC together – although the Bar Council admits that none of these options will lead to any significant reduction in costs.

According to the discussion paper, a hybrid LPC/BVC “would [also] create considerable uncertainty in the recruitment market as the ‘stars’ would be able to delay final commitment to a particular branch of the profession until the commencement of in-service training”.

A different solution would be for the Bar Council to subsidise course providers, therefore reducing course fees, but this option would reduce the number of places available and would go against the very idea of widening access to the profession.

Of course, if barristers agree that the Bar Council should financially back those entering the profession, the next question is where will all this cash come from? Considering that the Bar was horrified by Mountfield’s suggestion that all those earning more than 100,000 should pay 0.25 per cent of their wages towards a student support fund, it seems unlikely that they will vote for a move that will hike the annual cost of their practising certificate.

A slightly modified version, which has been put forward by the Bar Council’s Education and Training Committee, would redirect some of the fees paid by the Inns of Court into scholarship funds. Although this would also lead to a rise in subscription costs for the qualified barrister on the street, the extra money they paid would not directly pay for BVC fees.

However, it’s not all doom and gloom for those wanting to become a barrister. From January this year, all pupils will be paid a minimum wage of 10,000 in an attempt to curb debt levels. Another bonus is that student barristers have a new champion in the shape of Matthias Kelly QC, the recently appointed chairman of the Bar Council.

Kelly, a state-school educated son of a Northern Irish farmer, was burdened by student debt after training as a barrister in London, and attacked the Government’s proposals for top-up fees during his inaugural speech to the Bar Council.

“A university charging 3,000 a year will leave the student with a bill of an extra 1,900. Affluent students and their families will not think twice of paying for tickets to the best education in the land. Sadly, poorer families – including a disproportionate number from ethnic minority backgrounds – simply will not want to see their sons and daughters saddled with debt if there is a cheap and cheerful option down the road:’

Kelly firmly believes that he would not be able to succeed as a lawyer if he started out all over again.

“Many members of the present government benefited from the grant system … yet this government has swept it away. I think, to put it at its lowest, that is regrettable. It is like kicking the ladder away.”

He adds: “It is of the greatest importance that the [law] profession attracts the most able people. Merit should be the sole criteria.”