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Official survey: bar students are rubbish at ethics

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Latest figures show tumbling pass rates on vocational course exam — with bar regulators scratching their heads over the cause

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Bar students are increasingly struggling with the concept of right and wrong, as they fail the ethics element of the vocational exam in droves, figures released this month illustrate.

An annual analysis for the profession’s regulator of the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) shows that only 65.5% of students passed the ethics test at first sitting this year. And that figure has plummeted over the last three years by more than 20%.

The report — prepared earlier this month for the Bar Standards Board (BSB) by the chairman of the central examinations board — separates the results into two categories, those for the short answer question (SAQ) element of the exam and those for the multiple choice question (MCQ) segment.

This year 65.6% of students passed the SAQ element of the ethics exam at first sitting, down nearly 24% on the 2012 pass rate. While a more respectable 81% passed the MCQ element at first sitting — but that was still a drop of more than 13% from the 2012 figure.

The report pointed out that all 11 BPTC providers surveyed experienced falling first-sit pass rates for the ethics exam.

That woeful lack of understanding on behalf of prospective barristers of ethics contrasts with two other BPTC subjects. Bar students are able to cope well with criminal litigation, evidence and sentencing, with the first-sit pass rate increasing to nearly 73% — up by 4.6% — this year compared with 2012, when the BPTC replaced the Bar Vocational Course.

However, civil litigation, evidence and sentencing appears to be an even bigger stumbling block for bar students than tussling with ethical concepts. Only 57.6% passed this year at the first time of asking. But, in contrast with the ethics results, at least the trend in that category is up — if only marginally by 1.2% over the 2012 pass rate figure.

The disappointing ethics course trend comes 18 months after a silk slammed the BSB for allowing course providers to base their ethics syllabuses on outdated rules. Simon Myerson QC said law schools “should be ashamed of themselves” for the confusion, before lashing out at the BSB, saying there was “not much point regulating the profession unless you give a stuff about its students”.

Regarding the latest exam results, board chairman Professor Mike Molan expressed a degree of bewilderment in the report over the cause of the decline in ability of modern bar students to get their heads round ethics. “There has been a significant drop in the passing rates for professional ethics,” he wrote bluntly before conceding, “the reasons for which are not immediately apparent.”

Molan went on to say that the nosedive in ethical awareness ought to be a priority concern for the bar’s regulator.

“This should be the subject of continuing dialogue between the providers and the BSB,” he wrote, before invoking a classically bureaucratic excuse for the authorities to invoke if they decide to ignore the problem.

“… it is noted,” Molan continued, “that there are major changes in place as regards the professional ethics syllabus coming into force from 2014-15, hence the matter may be somewhat academic.”

A BSB spokesman also acknowledged that “there was no material evidence that could readily explain the decline in overall pass rates”. However, he maintained the regulator would continue to monitor bar students’ approach to ethics.

“In line with our policy of continuous improvement,” he said, “the BSB will continue our dialogue with providers over possible reasons for this decline.

“We received the results in July 2014 and will be working with providers to get an understanding of why there should’ve been a notable decline in pass rates. This feeds into our review of centralised assessments, which is now underway. We will be reporting on this in spring 2015.”

Further reading:

The Bar Standards Board Central Examinations Board Chair’s Report August 2014 [Bar Standards Board]

Will the BPTC class of 2014 have no ethics? [Legal Cheek]