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‘A self-serving industry’: barristers blast Bar Standards Board over training reform

Over 500 barristers have condemned proposals from the Bar Standards Board (BSB) to reform the regime for barristers-in-training.

High-profile members of the profession, such as former Lord Chief Justice Lord Woolf, are among the 505 signatories of an open letter to the BSB, criticising its suggestions for restructuring the exam process.

The letter, addressed to BSB chairman Sir Andrew Burns, states that the Future Bar Training (FBT) consultation paper dated October 2016, which sought to reform the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC), is: ‘not guided by a proper understanding of the BSB’s statutory objectives of promoting and protecting the public interest.’

The controversy relates to the proposal by the FBT consultation to offer different approaches for training barristers. These are the ‘managed pathways’ approach, which promotes flexible Bar-focused degrees, and a ‘Bar specific’ approach, which requires students to undertake a single exam.

In response, the letter states: ‘It fails to identify the underlying cause of the current problems, namely the fact that BPTC provision has become a self-serving industry that has vastly outgrown its raison d’être of training people in preparation for their becoming one of the people who commence providing legal services every year as members of the Bar of England and Wales.’

It adds: ‘it is inconceivable that a single exam, or even a series of exams within a short period’, could adequately assess all of the topics trainees are expected to cover. The letter also contends that there are just 430 pupillages available every year, despite 1,500 people undertaking the BPTC.

The signatories of the letter endorsed an alternative approach suggested by the Bar Council, which would see the BPTC split into two.

Charlotte Thomas of Brick Court Chambers, who co-authored the letter, told Legal Business: ‘The Bar Council’s proposal for a two-part BPTC is an attempt to make a real improvement in the current unacceptable state of affairs. It is the most realistic reform option on the table and commands wide support in the profession. It is much more workable than having multiple managed pathways.’

She added: ‘We want to work in partnership with the BSB to take forward a real solution to a problem that is harming the Bar and has been allowed to go on for far too long.’

Chairman of the Bar, Andrew Langdon QC, commented: ‘The Bar Council and COIC [Council of the Inns of Court] proposals for reforming barrister training would ensure that expensive course fees and associated costs are paid only by students who have a realistic prospect of becoming practising barristers.

‘This would give outstanding students from low-income backgrounds a better chance of securing pupillage and greater access to bursaries and other sources of funding. Over 500 members of the Bar have signed a letter to support our proposals. It is encouraging to see how seriously the profession takes social mobility.

‘We hope that the BSB considers carefully the Bar Council and COIC proposals.’

A spokesperson for the BSB said: ‘Our Future Bar Training consultation closed on Tuesday, 31 January. We received a high volume of responses to the consultation. All of the views expressed within those responses will be taken into consideration. The Board plans to come to a final decision on the best way forward in the spring.’

In December 2014, the BSB received approval from the Legal Standards Board (LSB) to regulate businesses that are authorised to provide reserved legal activities.