Bar Council report slams BPTC providers

“Commercial providers are using the system to make money from people with no realistic prospect of pupillage,” a report into the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) says.

The report ‘Criminal Justice, Advocacy and the Bar’ was commissioned by the Bar Council, produced by the Criminal Justice Reform Group and led by Geoffrey Rivlin QC.

It describes the BPTC as expensive and ‘not highly regarded by practitioners”, citing that of the 1,700 students which pass the course annually only around 400-500 will secure pupillage.

“As the overall number of BPTC graduates increases, the number of pupillages available falls,” it notes. “In 2014, fewer than 425 pupillages were available.”

The report also condemns the high cost of the BPTC and its knock on effect on both diversity and funding available to BPTC students.

It reads: “As BPTC fees have increased at a faster rate than scholarships from the Inns, it appears that the large scholarship sums being paid by the Inns to prospective barristers may be increasingly going directly to the BPTC providers, with little if anything left over to go towards living costs during the BPTC year.”

The authors then continue, saying: “While we recognise that the BSB does not wish to cap numbers on the BPTC, we fear that commercial providers are using the system to make money from people with no realistic prospect of pupillage. This should not happen.

“A solution could be achieved by raising the standards of entry on to the course, to prevent those with no realistic chance of a career at the Bar from undertaking it … to encourage anybody, but especially those likely to have higher levels of the debt, to undertake an extremely expensive course with little chance of success is worse than irresponsible.

“At present, most students undertake the BPTC without being able properly to assess their career prospects. The BPTC providers do not publish success rates in terms of pupillage or other employment no do they explain their own selection procedures. They should be required to do both by the BSB.”

The issue of capping BPTC student numbers or introducing more stringent entry criteria is a familiar one, with those against capping arguing that it could impact on diversity and individuals’ freedom to choose while those in favour argue that it results in over 1,000 students every year spending £18,000 on a course but not securing a pupillage.

The University of Law weighed into this debate last year, when it changed its entry requirements to its BPTC, allowing only students with a 2:1 to take the course. All other BPTC providers set a minimum requirement of a 2:2 class degree.  

The report also shines light on the newly instated Bar Course Aptitude Test (BCAT), which was introduced in 2012 and has a 98 per cent pass rate, according to the Bar Standards Board (BSB).

“As the current BCAT does not provide an effective filter, the BSB should instead introduce a basic level test, possibly including an interview that has the effect of ensuring that those on the course possess the necessary skills, including soft skills, that would enable them to secure pupillage,” it reads.

“This might also improve the experience of those on the course; current feedback from students suggest the low calibre and poor communication skills of some students has a negative impact on their learning experience.”

A BSB spokesperson said: “The Bar Standards Board has obtained a copy of the Bar Council’s Rivlin report and will study it carefully. We have nothing to add at the moment.”