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‘The BSB needs to be unafraid to be radical’: Bar regulator looks to overhaul training

The Bar Standards Board (BSB) is looking to carry out the ‘most sweeping reforms to Bar training in a generation’ after research found that parts of the current system were viewed as ‘an absolute disgrace’ and ‘exploitative’.

A consultation paper was launched last week to consider the best way to reform the current route to qualifying as a barrister, split into three parts covering academic requirements, the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) and pupillages.

The academic stage was addressed first with the Bar proposing to potentially shift towards requiring upper second-class degrees and looking at the best way to ensure that the competencies laid out in its draft Professional Statements are met.

The report also presented research carried out by the BSB chiefly assessing the next two stages with the BPTC coming under the most stringent criticism from both new and experienced barristers. ‘The BPTC as it currently stands is not fit for purpose’, said one practitioner while another added: ‘What I learned on the BPTC I have subsequently had to unlearn, and it is better that I unlearned it.’

One of the chief problems found with the course was its cost which stands around £18,000 in London. A new practitioner said, ‘The BPTC is actually exploitative. Providers don’t care about you, they care about the Money.’

‘It’s an absolute disgrace for a course this expensive that only one in five will get to use a qualification that is useless for anything other than becoming a barrister. I’ve heard it said that it’s like an MBA, but that’s just a sop,’ added a practicing barrister:

As potential solutions the regulator proposed three approaches: making improvements to the existing setup; switch to an outcome-focused approach, relaxing course requirements and increasing flexibility; establish a final centralised stage of assessment but otherwise allow greater flexibility in training.

The BPTC’s cost, as well as that of the pupillage, was also seen as a major reason for the low diversity in backgrounds among barristers – a key issue which the BSB wants to address in the reforms. A current pupil said: ‘It’s just a risk that is too high for most people to take… unless you have a particular personal background that can financially support you through that time.’

When looking at pupillages, the regulator is considering changing: the recruitment and selection of pupils, structure of pupillages, ensuring pupils meet required standards and the BSB’s role. It again presented three possible routes it could take: keeping the current system and making improvements such as changing the regulators approach to pupillage training organisations (PTO); relaxing requirements over pupillage structures but requiring pre-approval of PTO programmes; removing all prescription for programmes and instead carrying out external assessment of individual candidates.

The consultation will end on 30 October 2015 with the BSB then developing specific proposals. Overall the feeling among existing barristers is that the regulator needs to do something. One said: ‘I’m concerned that nothing much has changed since the Wood Review. The BSB seemed to say that they’d understood the concerns, but only tinkered with the system. I would be very disappointed if the same happened now… the BSB needs to be unafraid to be radical.’