Bar Council pooh-poohs BSB’s pupillage reform plans

The Bar Council has dismissed plans to reform legal education for barristers put forward by the Bar Standards Board (BSB) last year, saying its own idea is the only suitable way forward.

The BSB opened a consultation in October 2016 in which it proposed three potential avenues for reforming the way barristers train and qualify.

Its first proposal is an “evolutionary” approach that would tweak, essentially keep, the current system of academic study followed by vocational training then pupillage.

Its second proposal is a “managed pathways approach” involving a range of different ways to qualify, a similar proposition to what the SRA is currently mooting for the solicitors profession.

The third proposal is what the BSB calls the ‘specialist Bar’ option where students would pass a degree and the Bar Course Aptitude Test before taking a new qualifying examination – the Bar Entrance Exam (BEE).

The Bar Council, together with the Council of the Inns of Court (COIC), later put forward an addendum including a fourth proposal: splitting the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) into two parts, with attendance at law school not compulsory for the first part.

In its response to the consultation, the Bar Council has made it clear that it believes its own proposal to be the only suitable one.

“The COIC/Bar Council proposal is the best model for the vocational stage. It is likely to be cheaper, fairer and more efficient than any of the other models considered. It is likely to promote equality and diversity more effectively than the present, very expensive system, and more effectively than any of the alternatives on which the BSB is consulting,” it says.

“[It] has the widespread support of the profession, which has no financial vested interest in the subject matter of the present consultation and, indeed, a complete identity of interest with the BSB, students and the general public in promoting training that will be fit for purpose and available to the widest range of able applicants at proportionate cost.”

In its original paper, the BSB made it clear that its own favoured option was the ‘managed pathways’ one, saying “We think that this would be the best approach for ensuring that education and training providers can develop and offer more flexible modes of study so that that students are able to train in a way that suits them best.”

However, this has been pooh-poohed by the Bar Council, which claims having multiple pathways to qualification will increase increase regulatory cost; create confusion among students and chambers; and lead to a two tier-system with a ‘preferred’ model of training and a series of less well-regarded alternatives.

“It is therefore not appropriate to have multiple routes to authorisation which merge elements of the academic, vocational and work-based stages of learning in different ways,” it concludes.

“Rather the academic and work-based stages should be retained in their current format, but opportunities should be opened up to provide the vocational stage more flexibly, in the way we propose… while still delivering a syllabus similar to the present BPTC syllabus (which has not been substantially criticised).”

“The BSB’s concentration should be on reform of the structural delivery and therefore the cost of the vocational stage only.”

The Bar Council added that while it broadly agreed in the fundamental principles of accessibility, affordability and sustaining high standards put forward by the BSB as its guiding principles, “we do not agree with the BSB’s identification of flexibility as a fourth principle or aim.”

“We acknowledge that flexibility may be a consideration to be borne in mind when weighing up the various models, but we disagree with the proposition that it is necessarily a good end in itself,” it said.

“We note the BSB’s readiness… to consider other options for future Bar Training. Given that readiness, we expect the BSB to find no difficulty in embracing the COIC/Bar Council proposal depicted in the Addendum. As will be clear from this Response, however, we do not believe that it will be in the interests either of aspiring barristers, or the public, for there to be a multiplicity of options.”

“Our view… is that the COIC/Bar Council Proposal both amply meets the fundamental principles and criteria identified by the BSB, and also renders superfluous the need for new models other than (with our considerable reservations) the retention for the time being of those models currently available.”

The Bar Council response ends by calling on the BSB “not to delay implementing the changes necessary to enable the COIC/Bar Council proposal… the scandal associated with the high cost of the BPTC is such that it would not be right to subject further generations of students to it for any longer than is strictly necessary.”

The Bar Council’s plan is not without its critics. Writing for Lawyer 2B in December, Nottingham Law School’s director of the Centre for Advocacy Jeremy Robson laid out the potential diversity risks.

The full response can be read here.

Split the BPTC? Watch out for the diversity risks