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Bogus ‘boutique barrister’ puts regulator in spotlight over non-practising status

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Bar Standards Board defends its position as pupillage-less bar graduate is jailed for fraud after using “barrister” title

Lead

Regulators were in the spotlight today over the continuing grey area around non-practising barristers after a fraudster was convicted of hoodwinking thousands of pounds from the families of special needs children.

David Abbott was sentenced yesterday at Lewes Crown Court to a prison term of two years and three months for fraudulently maintaining he was a fully-qualified barrister.

The 50-year-old was called to the bar at Gray’s Inn in November 2008, but he never obtained pupillage and was therefore not fully qualified.

However, the court heard that he repeatedly held himself out as being qualified, despite having been disbarred by a Bar Standards Board (BSB) disciplinary tribunal in 2011.

In the criminal trial, Abbott was convicted of swindling families of special needs children out of thousands of pounds after claiming to be a “boutique barrister” specialising in education tribunal cases.

His conviction and jailing will reignite calls for the BSB and the Bar Council to tighten the rules on barrister qualification. Currently, a nebulous period exists between call and full qualification and then practice rights. The latter can only be achieved after the completion of a year’s pupillage.

There have long been suggestions that providers of the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) lobby the BSB and council to maintain the status quo. The rationale being that the providers do not want the BPTC to fall into the same position as the Legal Practice Course (LPC) for solicitors.

That course provides no practical advantage to students unless they obtain a training contract and qualify as solicitors. In other words, LPC graduates cannot describe themselves as non-practising solicitors.

Critics of the non-practising barrister status will leap on the Abbott case as a prime example of how the current system can be abused to the detriment of the wider bar’s reputation.

On 22 March 2011, a disciplinary tribunal disbarred Abbott following was string of offences. The tribunal found that Abbott had signed letters as “barrister at law” and had held himself out as being fully qualified in several other ways.

According to the tribunal finding, Abbott’s conduct at the time was “likely to diminish public confidence in the legal profession or the administration of justice or otherwise bring the legal profession into disrepute …”

Two years before disbarment, Abbott boasted on Twitter — where his handle was “LegalDavid” — that he had received his first judicial review instructions. “I’m going to be heard in the RCJ,” he wrote. “Anyone want to watch?”

A spokesperson for the BSB told Legal Cheek:

The question of when, in the qualification process, someone can use the term ‘barrister’ has been subject to much debate, by various bodies, for decades and we know it still divides opinion. When the BSB was established in 2006 one of our first priorities was to consider the issue ourselves. Following an open and broad consultation and an independent survey, the Board decided that not deferring the point of being Called to the Bar would reduce the risk of members of the public being confused about the status of barristers who are undertaking pupillage. The BSB’s view is that this lack of clarity would not be in the best interests of the public.”

Read the findings of the tribunal in full below:

David Abbott

39 Comments

Conker

Very simple: move Call to after pupillage.

(23)(1)

Tim

I have never understood the purpose of being Called to the Bar before you have any rights to practice whatsoever.

The title of “unregistered barrister” is misleading too – in what sense is this person a barrister? None. Completing the BPTC means nothing, anyone with £18k can do it. An “unregistered barrister” is no different from a “law graduate”. They should not be allowed to use the title barrister – adding the prefix “unregistered” doesn’t make it any less misleading.

Call to the Bar serves nor real purpose. It is a mere tradition. There qualifications and experience one must have in order to have a full licence to practice – that is what matters. Kids shouldn’t get too excited about being Called. You have not accomplished anything by merely being Called.

(12)(3)

Also meh

Agreed.

I worked in recruitment for compliance positions. I would always see CV’s saying in big bold letters that they are barristers, when I asked where they took pupilage I was told they were non-practising.

It happens so often I called BSB, they said you cannot say you are a barrister in a legal capacity, you can in any other. These guys were using it to get legal jobs, it was always an offence, deal with it pretty often.

(5)(0)

David Hughes

Not quite so simple. For example, in Gibraltar, admission to the Bar is dependent on having been admitted in one of the UK’s jurisdictions. Most qualify as barristers. To require them to do pupillage here would prevent them from going home to practice.

(0)(0)

Not Amused

*OR* instead of holding the whole of England and Wales to ransom and insisting that the currently broken system of barristers being called without completing pupillage remain un-reformed, we could politely ask Gibraltar (pop. 30,000) to just change its rules …

(3)(0)

Dr Bonham

“The latter can only be achieved after the completion of a year’s pupillage.”

Actually, one can gain dispensation from completing a pupillage, although this is rare.

(5)(6)

Not Amused

The BSB did nothing. Ruth Deech (sp? – such is my contempt for this human that I cannot be bothered to check) did nothing.

They don’t get to make vague comments when they have manifestly fucked up.

(5)(4)

LegalEagle

It’s already simple now. Once you’re called you can only refer to yourself as an unregistered barrister until you complete pupillage. How is that complicated? The fact of the matter is that this person lied about being qualified – this would have happened irrespective of whether Call was after pupillage. I know plenty of BPTC graduates who haven’t even been called who refer to themselves as a barrister – that is simple proof that if people are going to misrepresent themselves then they will do so.

Changing the way things are done now isn’t going to prevent this.

(9)(6)

Terry

Why on earth would you call yourself an ‘unregistered barrister’. It’s embarrassing.

“So what do you do?”

“I’m an unregistered barrister”

“so you’re a barrister?”

“Well, no”

It’s just a consolation prize for the unlucky ones. Take it away and the no-hopers will have one more reason not to splurge 18k on a pointless course.

(17)(2)

LegalEagle

First of all, that scenario doesn’t make sense. If the question is what do you do then the answer isn’t ‘I’m an unregistered barrister’ because that isn’t what they do it’s what technically they have the privilege of calling themselves. I’m not suggesting people necessarily would want to call themselves that, I’m merely saying that is the title as it stands. The reality is that most everyday people don’t understand the process of becoming a barrister. They have no idea what pupillage is, think an LLB is all you need and in the end don’t actually care as long as the person representing them is qualified to practice. Changing what people are allowed to call themselves and when is not going to change that.

Also – the people who are ‘no-hopers’ don’t know they’re no-hopers. If they did they wouldn’t spend all that money and time to get a useless and embarrassing title. That’s the whole problem, hundreds of students are not being told ‘You are not good enough to make it’ and are spending 18k thinking they have a real chance. Giving people a dose of reality before they spend their money is what will prevent that.

(6)(2)

Concerned Tutor

This is actually not at all simple and I really don’t think deferral of call will help – though there are perhaps other reasons why that might be a good idea…

In fact, this doesn’t just happen with “barrister-at-law”. There is really nothing to stop any LLB grad from (quite legitimately) signing off as John Smith LLB because that is their genuine academic rank. The trouble with this is that many practicing solicitors are inclined to do this too. Hence, John Smith can pretend to be a solicitor rather easily. The fact that the LPC does not give a separate title does not prevent this.

And of course, as Legal Eagle highlights, there is nothing to stop John Smith also just talking utter nonsense and saying he is a solicitor, barrister, or a PhD, or (in the case of some) all three + a handful of patents and a decorated war veteran besides.

(10)(1)

Terry

Yes but ‘LLB’ looks nothing like ‘solicitor’. It’s unlikely that people will be deceived.

All this barrister at law/barrister/registered/unregistered silliness is just confusing. The average chap on the street can be misled easily.

Just stop it.

(7)(3)

Anonymous

The error was the fraudulent misrepresentation. The ethical implications of the unregistered representing litigants seem rather less serious. Personally I would do away with the need for pupillage, the sole purpose of which is to allow the profession to maintain a closed shop, something we have outlawed for most other jobs.

(10)(8)

Anonymous

Do away with the main vocational training stage?

(6)(1)

Anonymous

To all intent and purpose the requirement to complete pupillage places exclusive control over who can enter the profession in the hands of chambers. Chambers select pupils for various reasons. Sometimes bogus. Sometimes legitimate. The recruitment statistics speak for themselves and those that offer the prospect of a decent income are hopelessly biased in their selection criteria toward white, privately educated, Oxbridge males.

Put another way, the requirement for pupillage is the main tool by which the profession is able to exclude outsiders. That often translates into excluding those who are “not like us”. That cascades into the judiciary and so on.

Get rid of the requirement for pupillage. If clients want those who have a year under their belt, let them decide with their wallets. Caveat emptor.

(10)(10)

Anonymous

‘Sometimes bogus. Sometimes legitimate’ sounds like a controversial summary of pupillage recruitment patterns. I’d wager that very few, if any, pupils are selected for ‘bogus’ reasons.

(9)(2)

pupil

You think you’re ready to practise after completing the BPTC? Dream on mate.

(19)(3)

Pantman

He is not saying that you are ready to practice after the BPTC, but indicating that if the only way to qualify is through pupillage, then the gatekeepers will always be chambers – and they can recruit “people like us”. I take that to mean that there should be some other way to qualify: exams, training sessions…

(3)(2)

Anonymous

No. People who pass the BPTC should proceed to the main vocational training stage.
Or it should be mandatory that the candidate must have secured pupillage before commencing the BPTC.
Everyone called will have a single title.

(1)(0)

TH

Won’t doing away with pupilage will just mean that you’ll have convince a chambers to let you join their set, and diring the first year they will give you all the junior work? They will still hold the keys to the gate! It’ll just be a change in name.

(0)(0)

Anonymous

It is not imperative that one join chambers.

(0)(3)

Pantman

I always thought that the excuse for allowing the term “barrister” to be used prior to pupillage was that all those who complete the BPTC and go on to practice overseas (legitimately) are allowed to use the title.

(3)(0)

Seamus

Whilst I agree that some fraudsters who want to lie will do so regardless of the circumstances, I feel that as the current system leaves many aspirant barristers with huge amounts of debt and without employment the chances of things like this happening are inevitably going to be higher than they should. Call them the Walter Whites of the legal world: not the typical profile of a criminal, but whose circumstances lead them down the wrong path.

Let’s put ourselves in Old Abbott’s shoes. A middle-aged man, called to the Bar just a few years ago. So, we can presume a career change. The BPTC was probably funded at a considerable personal cost, and all those Inn scholarships went to bright young things straight outta Oxbridge. Old Abbott would have saved for a few years, then quit his secure job and told all his family and friends he was going to become a barrister. His elderly mother would have been proud, maybe she even attended his Call ceremony at Gray’s Inn. Pictures of him standing tall, beaming in his brand new £500 wig would go all around Facebook. Oh, what a day!

But then his peers from the Bar course would get pupillage interviews, and some even pupillage offers. It would be okay at first, because it was only the really outstanding candidates. But then the rest of his peers would get pupillage offers too, and poor Old Abbott was left with his dreams in ruins. How could he face the shame!? Abject failure! And debts to pay! Oh, what a day!

However, fate was not done with Old Abbott just yet. An unassuming email comes through from a friend of a friend who is in real need of affordable legal representation: her child has special needs but her weekly income support has been cut. She was told that ‘my friend Old Abbott is a barrister, maybe he can help…?’. And the mother isn’t picky; she’s desperate. She needs a hero, a legal crusader who will fight for justice, someone who will take a case all the way to the RCJ and brag about it on Twitter… she needs an Old Abbott! Oh, what a day!

And just like that, Heisenbarrister is born…

Okay, I got carried away. Yes I’m being facetious, but it illustrates an important point. The current system is exploitative and broken, and the case of Old Abbott is symptomatic.

(39)(0)

Sir Viv

My fav LC post to date

(7)(0)

Jon

Old Abbott’s real crime is taking thousands of pounds from vulnerable “clients” – can’t blame that one on the system

(6)(1)

Sure

To address a few of Legal Eagle’s points….

– “it’s what technically they have the privilege of calling themselves” : just because it is ‘technically’ the term they are allowed to use doesn’t mean it’s not confusing (much like double negatives…). Especially to those who are not part of the legal profession.

– “I’m merely saying that is the title as it stands”: just because it is what it is doesn’t mean it’s good.

– “The reality is that most everyday people don’t understand the process of becoming a barrister” : agreed – all the more reason to clarify the process, and the various steps involved.

– “Giving people a dose of reality before they spend their money is what will prevent that” : by making it clear that without a pupillage you are not a ‘fully-fledged’ barrister (if you take it to mean ‘allowed to practice as such’, which I do) perhaps? Instead of clinging onto technicalities and traditions?

(3)(1)

Anonymous

You’re still a doctor if you’re not on the GMC register, even if you haven’t done the foundation years with patient contact. You just can’t give medical advice/treatment as a doctor. What’s the difference?

The Bar Course offers transferable skills. I’m not suggesting that you get a name badge engraved, but in certain circumstances, such as website introduction pages, barrister (non-practising) seems like a useful piece of information.

(7)(6)

oxford_lawyer

Actually for those who haven’t bothered reading the rules recently there is no such thing as Barrister non-practising anymore nor is there unregistered Barrister. The rule is simple if you have not done pupillage you can’t call yourself Barrister in relation to legal work or advice whatever you put after it. You can only therefore use the title in things outside the law.

(3)(4)

Pantman

You went to Oxford to work that out!? Everyone knows that – that’s the point. You can’t call yourself a barrister in relation to legal work, but you can tell everyone you’re a barrister at any other time.

(8)(1)

Anonymous

My Call certificate tells me I have achieved the “degree of utter barrister”. Surely being a barrister is an academic qualification granted by an Inn of Court. Being able to practice as a barrister is an employment status. I’m employed as a Principal Legal Officer, so I use that title. Practising barristers and judges still refer to me as a barrister. But if I fraudulently started to represent those other than my employer, I agree that would be wrong.

(4)(3)

Steven

What I often see on CV’s is “Called to the Bar: x year” – this suggests the person is a barrister without explicitly using the title and thus not an offence.

(3)(1)

Anonymous

That’s what I do.

I’m a solicitor, but I was called to the Bar and didn’t do pupillage on my way to admission to the Roll. I have to stick “called to the Bar” on my CV, because if I don’t, the fact that I did the BVC but wasn’t called is just plain odd (and suggests that there’s something unsavoury about my character that means that I wasn’t called).

The issue comes when dealing with business development (either for the firm or at times when I’ve moved jobs), where other people are selling me to a third party. There’s always a risk that they know one half of the equation but not the other (i.e. they know that I am supposedly a Barrister but not that I’m not allowed to hold myself out to be one for the purposes of doing legal work).

The easier (and I feel the more honest) course of action that I have taken is to avoid the use of the Barrister title full stop. I then have to copper-bottom this by checking that no one who *has* got hold of the “called to the Bar” bullet point hasn’t mistakenly held me out as a legally qualified Barrister, or come to that conclusion.

Yes, it’s a farce and my life would be made slightly more convenient if there was some simplification.

(4)(0)

Anonymous

You should either be a barrister or not, I have seen legal BPTC grads that have qualified via ilex and have non-practising barrister in their titles. LinkedIn is the place to see how many people there is doing this.

I find it quite shocking, and it can only be confusing to members of the public.

(3)(0)

Bonobo

Yes there are loads of them. Just type it into Google. Read a couple and imagine yourself as an average punter. All these grand sounding words are completely misleading.

I know that these babies must have their bottles but it’s just not in the public interest to have these charlatans in every town and city.

(3)(0)

Bonobo

How can you be ‘non-practising’ if you work in a bloody law firm?? What the hell else are you doing?

(4)(1)

37th Earl of Dublin

None of you matter.

Solicitor advocates are the future. And pro bobo.

(4)(5)

Peter M

Enough of this Earl of Dublin shit. It was mildly funny the first time round…

(4)(3)

Pop

The BSB needs to diversify – and its things like this which muddy the waters and vision of the profession as a whole.

I really don’t see why the BSB, and other members of the profession who have also commented here, cannot get off of their high horse and acknowledge the non-pupillage barristers with some formality.

I don’t see why through an alternative means of training (lets say, through proving that you have been actively involved in advising, be it a paralegal position or as a legal consultant) and attending a stupid amount of CPD hours, non-pupillage individuals cannot have a professional presence.

The Bar needs to be flexible and quick. There’s so much opportunity out there with the incredible liquidity of VC money – but so many bright minds are being held at the gates, and now more than ever – free the market up a bit! Jesus!

(1)(2)

Pop

I’ll also add that service providers such as lexoo.co.uk will be the future, its effectively p2p advice without the actual running costs and needs of a firm/chambers – don’t see why non-pupillage individuals, through an alternative practical training element, cannot be professionally able to hold themselves out as barristers or some shy equivalent.

(0)(3)

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