Restricting The BPTC To Students Who’ve Already Bagged a Pupillage Wouldn’t Breach Competition Law…

...but it would put pressure on chambers to fund the course – and could lead to it getting scrapped altogether, writes Lancaster University's Angus MacCulloch

The plight of thousands of aspiring barristers who invest large sums of money to undertake the BPTC, but are increasingly unlikely to secure pupillage, has encouraged a lively debate in and around the profession (see, for instance, contributions from The Law Horse, Alex Aldridge and BPP Law School CEO Peter Crisp).

In this debate competition law looms like a spectre; often being referred to but rarely being discussed.

It is also worth remembering that any question regarding access to the Bar is equally applicable to all other branches of the legal, and other, professions.

The Bar isn’t being singled out for attention, it just happens to be in the cross hairs at the moment.

The competition law issue is essentially very simple. The Bar Standards Board (BSB), as a professional body and regulator, controls the entry requirements for the profession. The competition authorities become concerned when it appears that the rules put in place by the regulator appear to favour the interests of the profession over that of others. The Competition Authority’s task is to ensure that the market for legal services operates in a manner which best serves the interests of the consumer.

When deciding who can practice at the Bar the rules should ensure the quality of legal services and, by facilitating healthy competition, ensure low prices and increased accessibility, by means of direct access or otherwise.

I’ll take a look at a few of the suggestions made for reform and tease out the competition problems before I pitch in my own thoughts.

Limit the number of BPTC places

This is an idea that comes up quite often, but it will be the hardest to sell to the competition authorities. Why?

A naked restriction on numbers permitted to enter the profession does nothing for the consumer of legal services. The only people who benefit are the profession themselves. It is in the consumers interest to have vigorous competition to get into the profession, as it drives up standards as only the ‘best’ will get through, and vigorous competition within the profession, to drive up standards and drive down prices.

The case has not been made out why a restriction on numbers benefits the consumers of legal services. There may be an argument that the restriction protects a group of law students from investing in useless qualifications, but that limited benefit would have to clearly outweigh the benefits to the wider consumer from vigorous competition.

Qualitative restrictions on entry to the BPTC

This is more likely to be approved. High quality legal services are of benefit to the consumer and the restriction ‘fits’ with the aim. This leads to the more interesting debate about what sort of restriction is proportionate. A very high bar is less likely to be approved; as that level of restriction isn’t necessary to achieve the aim, and the restriction begins to look like a disguised quantitative restriction.

I’ve ignored questions of social mobility so far. Mobility would also be accepted as a legitimate aim which should be weighed up in regulating entry to the profession.

No BPTC until pupillage is secured

This solution is counterintuitive, in that it would probably restrict the numbers doing the BPTC most, but would be quite easy to sell to the competition authorities. The simple reason is that it is a market solution. There is no ‘hard’ quantitative restriction on entry placed by the regulator.

Each chambers independently determines how many pupils they wish to take on (it would have to be an independent choice – if there was evidence of collusion or central planning on numbers, we are back to a naked quantitative restriction).

In this scenario the market sets the numbers and competition between qualified applicants ensures the ‘best’ secure the available places (here the ‘best’ is selected by each chambers on the basis of their own criteria).

The most saleable solution?

In competition terms it should not be a surprise to see that the ‘market’ solution works the best. There are also few social mobility issues in relation to the qualifications needed to apply for pupillage, as there would be open competition between all who hold a law degree or GDL.

The problem for the Bar with this solution is that it raises questions about who funds the BPTC? At the moment, generally, all the risk is carried by the student; they self-fund the qualification. If a candidate has already secured pupillage with a particular chambers there is a legitimate question about why that chambers makes no contribution to a qualification they demand, and arguably benefit from. In fact, some chambers offer monies pre-pupillage, in an attempt to off-set the self-funding issue.

Nevertheless, the tension created between the individual self-employed barristers and the new entrants remains – why would they want to fund them? If we were working under an employment model there would be no question that a good employer should at least contribute to an employment specific qualification. Yet, if chambers were required to contribute to the qualification they may well begin to question why a one-year full-time course was necessary before the commencement of pupillage.

Competition is about the consumer

The competition issues in relation to entry to a profession are quite simple. The difficulty is balancing all the conflicting interests when it comes to ensuring that enough good quality candidates make it through. If the legal profession is to get its training regime accepted by the competition authorities they need to stop thinking only about what is best for the profession and start thinking hard about the consumer. So far there isn’t a great deal of evidence of that in the current debate.

Angus MacCulloch is a senior lecturer in law at Lancaster University. His research interests lie chiefly in competition, EU and business law.

4 Responses to “Restricting The BPTC To Students Who’ve Already Bagged a Pupillage Wouldn’t Breach Competition Law…”

  1. Sandman

    There's no need to be so paternalistic towards BVC students. Everybody goes into the BVC with their eyes open. English pupillages might be limited, but there's a heap of common law jurisdictions that recognise the BVC as a route to entry.

    Limiting the BVC only to those who have secured pupillage would adversely impact those who are seeking overseas employment, as foreign law firms would not operate under the same timetables for new entrants as English barristers' chambers.

    Limiting places would also mean fewer course locations , as a reduced student body would not support the current number of courses locations. This could reduce diversity as many BVC students afford the course only by living with family or continuing an existing well-paid job while studying part-time. But if they can no longer take the course in their closest city they may decide that moving away from their family or quitting work for a year is too much of a burden.

    Really you let the market decide by having a competitive number of course providers allowing credible candidates to take the course and then whether they become barristers or utilise the qualification in another way is up to the student.

    Reply
  2. BarStudent

    Sandman, you’d be surprised at how many students at Bar school have no concept of how poor their career chances are. I’ve met students with very poor university grades, no chance of obtaining pupillage who have decided to train as barristers because they saw an advert for law school on the bus. They’ve spent their family’s life savings (fees are now £16k) thinking that if they get a place on the course, they must be good enough to get a pupillage. They’re wrong, only one in four bar school graduates get a pupillage, and the private colleges that run the course are making an absolute killing.

    But it’s not just about protecting the poor idiots who get sucked in by the law schools’ clever advertising. The quality of the interactive teaching sessions is dragged down by large numbers of students who either can’t speak English, or lack the intellectual capacity to understand the work. Narrowing the intake to those with the aptitude to succeed would enhance the quality of training and ultimately benefit consumers.

    Not only that, I’ve spoken to numerous students from non-traditional backgrounds who would like to be barristers (and probably have the skills to make it) but have decided to become solicitors purely because of the better recruitment model. Bar students fork out a fortune for training, and then have a very narrow chance of progressing onto the next stage. Prospective solicitors typically get a training contract before starting their GDL/LPC, which is then paid for by a law firm with a guaranteed job at the end. The Bar’s archaic recruitment model is putting off good applicants, and that can’t be good for consumers either.

    Reply
  3. @metienne12

    To observe that chambers would start to question the need for the bptc if they had to contribute is an indictment of a course that costs thousands to students, rightly has challenging pass marks (certainly more so than the lpc) but commands little respect from those in the profession.

    The schools won't do anything because they are in it for profit not the advancement of the profession. A fundamental reassessment of the nature and structure of pre-pupillage training is long overdue.

    Reply

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