Criminal pupillages cancelled

Two chambers suspend pupil intakes as legal aid cuts start to bite

“Law students – give up now. There be no gold here.” That was the reaction of one reader to the news that leading criminal law set Charter Chambers has suspended its recruitment of pupils.

Charter was soon joined by Guildhall Chambers when it withdrew its criminal pupillage. Guildhall is still offering an employment pupillage – a stark indication of how different parts of the bar are performing.

Meanwhile civil law set 39 Essex Street, which last year took on 24 members from 4-5 Gray’s Inn, also cancelled pupil recruitment for this year, saying: “In the light of its recent expansion, and the consequent short-term changes in chambers demographics at the junior end… 39 Essex Street has resolved that it should take one year (only) out of the pupillage round.”

The good news is that 39 Essex Street stated explicitly that its decision was not sparked by concerns about the market in general. The bad news is that there are still fewer placements at chambers for hopeful would-be barristers, whatever the reason.

Charter was straightforward in its reasons for stopping pupillages. Chambers director Ian Payn said that legal aid cuts, combined with the Government’s introduction of best-value tendering, would “destroy the whole notion of pupillage”.

Charter’s Henry Grunwald QC supported this view, saying: “Any set of chambers which is dependent on public work for its fee income will be in a very difficult position.”

He conceded that non-legal aid chambers, such as commercial and chancery, would continue to offer funded pupillages but said it was neither fair nor realistic for Charter to offer pupillages at the moment.

When asked whether the decision meant Charter had cut off its supply of young talent, Grunwald said: “You talk of cutting off lifeblood, but that’s assuming that life will continue. Our fear is that it won’t. There’s not going to be much of a publicly funded criminal bar for people to aspire to come to.”

If he is right it is a dire outlook for future pupils. Bar Council figures show that the criminal bar takes on 28.6 per cent of pupils. Just 14 per cent are commercial. There may still be gold at the bar, but it depends on where you look.