BPTC is rubbish and needs urgent reform — say top barristers

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By Judge John Hack on

Bar Council report lashes providers for churning out an expensive yet poorly regarded course — and the aptitude test is equally lambasted


The Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) is an expensive waste of time and its aptitude test a useless filter of unsuitable students.

A damning indictment from students? No, the robust and controversially frank view of the body representing barristers in England and Wales.

A report released last month from the Bar Council will have provided uncomfortable reading for law schools knocking out the 10-month BPTC, which in London sets wannabe barristers back to the tune of £18,000.

Authored by the council’s criminal justice reform group with former circuit judge Geoffrey Rivlin QC in the chair, the report points out that currently some 1,700 students are on the course, most of whom don’t stand a snowball’s chance of bagging a pupillage.

“The BPTC is expensive and is not highly regarded by practitioners,” said the report starkly.

It went on to say:

“The cost of training and the insecurity of an unsustainable income once qualified impacts particularly on those from less well‑advantaged backgrounds.

“Those without access to funds are less able to take the financial risk in aiming for a career at the bar or in surviving the first few years of practice with substantial debt. The Bar is therefore likely to miss out on this talent, with a knock-on effect for the future of a diverse judiciary.”

According to the Rivlin report, BPTC providers should be forced to reform course content “to ensure that it addresses any gaps identified by the profession and better prepares candidates for practice”.

The top barristers pressured academics to produce a course that better reflects the skills needed for daily practice at the bar.

Commented the authors:

“At present, at least parts of the profession have an unclear picture of what qualities are required when people begin pupillage and what chambers need to add by way of the pupillage itself. The profession needs to identify the skills required at each stage, so that the BPTC can be focused on what is actually needed pre-pupillage.”

The BPTC should include modules that can be accessed by other legal professions, counselled the report’s authors. Doing so would create a situation whereby “those who pass part of the course have qualifications that can be used even if they do not secure pupillage”.

Course providers were also critcised for not coming clean with students regarding the grim pupillage market.

“At present,” said the authors, “most students undertake the BPTC without being able properly to assess their career prospects. The BPTC providers do not publish success rates in terms of pupillage or other employment, nor do they explain their own selection procedures.”

Again the Rivlin report called on the bar’s regulator to crack down, saying it should require course providers to publish those figures. Doing so would enable students to make better informed choices.

Rivlin referred to earlier reported proposals to split the BPTC into two parts: the first would be conducted exclusively online and be considerably cheaper; the second would involve traditional teaching but only be open to those that cleared the earlier hurdle.

Such a system, said the report, “would mean that those who realistically will never secure pupillage would not be enticed into greater debt with false hopes. It should also enable the standard of advocacy training in part 2 to be raised, as only the most talented students would progress to this stage”.

The report went on to suggest that the Inns of Court could take over advocacy training from private law schools:

“If part 2 became smaller, then we would hope that advocacy could be taught by the Inns and/or the circuits, thereby easing the financial burden on students, providing a higher quality of training, and providing the different specialist bars with an ability to influence the practice of juniors in other fields.

“Pupils would no doubt be taught some of their advocacy by experienced practitioners, and civil practitioners could input their skills into paper exercises, resulting in a higher quality of training for all.”

The much-maligned aptitude test — which all prospective students must pass before being accepted for a BPTC place — also took a kicking from the Rivlin report.

“The current BCAT does not provide an effective filter,” wrote the authors. They went on to demand that “the Bar Standards Board should instead introduce a basic level test, possibly including an interview that has the effect of ensuring that those on the course possess the necessary skills, including soft skills, that would enable them to secure pupillage.

“A more thorough investigation into what skills are required and how they can be assessed would need to be carried out, alongside an impact assessment to ensure that these processes did not exclude certain groups.

“This might also improve the experience of those on the course; current feedback from students suggests the low calibre and poor communication skills of some students has a negative impact on their learning experience.”

Neither of the two biggest BPTC providers — the University of Law and BPP Law School — wished to comment on the Rivlin Report.

And as far as the regulator is concerned, cards were played close to chest. A BSB spokesperson told Legal Cheek the board “has obtained a copy of the Bar Council’s Rivlin report and will study it carefully. We have nothing to add at the moment”.

Read the Criminal Justice Reform Group’s report in full below:

Rivlin Report Final March 2015