Legal Business Blogs

Watchdog to raise bar on the Bar in toughened pre-vocational test

The Bar Standards Board (BSB) has stepped in to the long-simmering debate on costs and access to the profession to confirm it will toughen the Bar Course Aptitude Test (BCAT) amid controversy regarding 99%-plus pass rates.

The BCAT was introduced in 2013 as a means of weeding out aspiring barristers with little chance of a successful career or passing the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC).

However, the new test – which students have to pay £150 to complete before embarking on vocational training – had virtually no impact the numbers taking the BPTC, with the BSB conceding the test was initially too easy to pass.

The BSB suspended the test in December amid a review of its performance. Its findings on the test, published this month, found 0.6% of those sitting the test – 13 students – were unable to pass after one or more attempts, meaning more than 99% of students passed in the test year.

The Bar watchdog concluded, however, that the test was a strong indicator of subsequent performance in vocational training and decided to retain the test with a higher pass score. The pass mark will rise from 38 to 45 – a level that the BSB estimates would lead to 16.6% of applicants failing the test. Students will be given a graded result as well, rather than a pass or fail, to give a better indication of their prospects.

However, The Bar Council warned that the toughened test will do little to filter out students with no chance of obtaining pupillage. Chair Chantal-Aimée Doerries QC (pictured) said both the BCAT and the BPTC create false hope at too high a cost.

Said Doerries: ‘Over 1,500 students enrol on the BPTC each year, which costs between £12,000 and £19,000 in tuition fees alone, but there are only around 400 pupillages available. One of the messages I hear consistently on circuit visits is that the system is producing large numbers of applicants who have little or no prospect of obtaining pupillage or practising as a barrister.’

One Essex Court barrister Joyce Arnold said it was unfair to ask students to meet ‘huge expense’ for a test to win a place on an expensive course that is very specialised. Arnold told Legal Business: ‘You can do the sums with the number of people who have applied for the Bar course over the past three years. That’s a lot of money going to the BSB and their private partner.’

Subject to approval by the Legal Services Board, the changes will come into effect in 2017. Whatever the future of the test, the Bar is a long way from defusing trenchant criticism of profiteering law schools and a dysfunctional education market.