‘Bar Council’s attack on BPTC providers is wrong’ – Nottingham Law School responds to Rivlin criticism

Earlier this week, a Bar Council report criticised the commercial providers of the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC), saying they “are using the system to make money from people with no realistic prospect of pupillage.” Here is the response of one of those providers, Nottingham Law School.

‘Criminal Justice, Advocacy and the Bar’, the report produced by the Criminal Justice Reform Group led by His Honour Geoffrey Rivlin QC,  and commissioned by the Bar Council is the third report in the last 12 months to look at the landscape of advocacy in the criminal courts, (following Sir Bill Jeffrey’s report into criminal advocacy and the Rt Honorable Sir Brian Leveson’s review into efficiency in the criminal justice system).

Unlike its predecessors, both of which were funded by the government at the behest of the Lord Chancellor, the Rivlin report was commissioned by the Bar Council on behalf of its members and as such is largely directed to protecting the interests of the Bar. Unlike Jeffrey and Leveson, who sought to obtain the views of a wide range of diverse stakeholders in the system, Rivlin has based his recommendations on the conclusions of a working group drawn exclusively from the criminal Bar (whose membership is not disclosed within the report) with little indication of the rationale for many of the recommendations.

It is perhaps therefore unsurprising that the report reads, in the words of barrister and legal commentator Dan Bunting, “in part like a love letter to the Bar.”

An area which has attracted some attention is the swingeing attack made at BPTC providers.

The report states: ”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.”

Jeremy Robson
Jeremy Robson, Nottingham Law School: ”The Rivlin report also makes the sweeping statement that the BPTC is ‘not highly regarded by practitioners’. Unfortunately the report does not assist with the methodology that lay behind this assertion.”

The report is correct. It should not happen. And that is why it doesn’t happen.

On the contrary, since the BPTC was launched, the Bar Standards Board, BPTC providers and the Inns of Court have ensured that prior to enrolling on the course prospective students are required to receive a “health warning” highlighting the relatively low number of pupillages compared to the number of prospective applicants and urging applicants to seek advice before applying.

The evidence seems to suggest these deterrents are effective. There are over 20,000 law graduates each year along with a smaller number of students who take a Graduate Diploma in Law having studied for a non-law degree. Rivlin indicates that approximately 1,700 complete the BPTC annually, indicating that the vast majority of law students are not tempted to the Bar.

The Wood review of the Bar Vocational Course rejected the notion that numbers should be cut for the sake of it noting that it would make providers the gatekeepers to the profession, a notion which the Bar considered unacceptable.

It also rejected the notion that entry should be limited to those with a degree classification of 2:1 or above, observing that a small number of students with a 2:2 did obtain a pupillage.

Responsible BPTC providers recognise this in their selection procedure, only allowing a candidate with a 2:2 a place if they can provide other evidence of excellence to compensate for their lower degree class. At Nottingham Law School in the last academic year, over 83 per cent of students had a degree of a 2:1 or first. If the statistics for the number of pupillages available and the number of overall applicants in the pool are widely available it is difficult to see what more information could be provided to inform the decision making process.

Indeed, as the number of pupillages falls year on year, it becomes positively misleading to cite figures from previous years when more pupillages were available.

It is right to say there is a cost to the BPTC, as there is for most postgraduate education, and that the overall level of student debt has risen dramatically since the introduction of undergraduate tuition fees, a factor which has no doubt brought the cost of courses into sharper focus.

However, the BPTC is a course with very strict regulatory requirements in terms of staffing requirements, estate and resources and these bring with them a financial cost which is reflected in the fees. Advocacy (which is at the heart of the Rivlin report) is required to be taught in groups of six students to one tutor. The duration and intensity of the BPTC was a factor commented on very favourably by Sir Bill Jeffrey in his report.

There are fees from the BPTC which vary from provider to provider. Nottingham Law School charges £13,800 and the highest fees, (charged by the University of Law and BPP in London) are £18,500. But charging for a postgraduate qualification which can enhance career prospects is not something restricted to legal education. When these figures are compared to the fees for a taught MBA (which often begin at £20,000 for less contact time in larger groups) it becomes difficult to sustain the arguments that BPTC fees are disproportionately expensive for the service they provide.

It may well be that the BSB’s review of Bar Training addresses the issue of course regulation and allows for more flexible means of delivery which allow for a subsequent reduction in cost but in the absence of this, the BPTC providers cannot be held responsible for either the number of students entering the course nor the cost it needs to levy.

The Rivlin report also makes the sweeping statement that the BPTC is ‘not highly regarded by practitioners’. Unfortunately the report does not assist with the methodology that lay behind this assertion. The working group was drawn from a small section of the profession and no evidence is provided of what criteria they were asked to review the BPTC against or whether they had sufficient expertise to do so (some practitioners are still unaware that the course is no longer called the BVC).

It is certainly a conclusion which is at odds with the more reasoned findings of the Jeffrey Review. It is also at odds with the evidence based approach of the Legal Education and Training Review which found that “standards of specialist advocacy training on the BPTC and through the Inns of Court were generally very well regarded.” There is certainly no evidence that the standards of BPTC graduates who enter pupillage are falling, which must be the primary concern for those involved in the criminal justice system.

No-one wishes to see someone’s dreams of becoming a barrister being shattered, least of all those who have devoted their professional career to legal education and training and who often feel a personal responsibility to the students they teach. What is important is that those who wish to pursue a career at the Bar are provided with the training and support which allows them to do so.

This does not mean that there is not scope for review and reform, in particular in relation to flexibility and cost, and this is the process which is currently being undertaken by the Bar Standards Board. There are no artificial inducements to take the BPTC, no guarantees of pupillage and no promises of wealth. Applicants to the BPTC are at least 20 years old at the time they apply and live in a world where data about chances of success at the Bar is at their fingertips.

The Bar has always argued that its strength comes from the competitive nature of practice and the need to constantly demonstrate excellence. Arbitrarily restricting the pool of applicants at too early a stage will mean some potentially very successfully candidates are lost from the profession and do little to encourage diversity.

Jeremy Robson is a barrister, senior lecturer and director of the Centre for Advocacy at Nottingham Law School