Award law scholarships on need rather than merit, urges Lady Justice Hallett

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By Alex Aldridge on

Otherwise legal profession will contain only children of the rich

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As the Inns of Court scholarship deadline draws near — the window for applications closes today — a Court of Appeal judge has questioned the practice of awarding law school sponsorship on the basis of merit.

Currently two of the Inns, Lincoln’s and Gray’s, allocate their annual combined £2million scholarship pots according to pure academic performance and advocacy ability.

The other two, Middle Temple and Inner Temple — which offer a similar amount of money — take into account both the students’ need for financial help and their academic ability, although a host of their top awards are assessed on merit only.

At a time of spiralling higher education costs and concerns about social mobility going backwards, this isn’t good enough, suggests Hallett, who is well-known for sitting as coroner in the inquest over the 7/7 bombings.

Speaking at the Institute for Government’s ‘Legally Diverse’ event this week — which has been filmed and placed on YouTube (embedded below) — she said:

The Inns of Court used to provide scholarships to the best students … I think we have got to ask whether we should be providing scholarships to those who come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Otherwise we will revert to the legal profession being only for the rich and privileged.

Despite the more enlightened approach taken by Inner Temple — which has led the way in including need in scholarship assessment criteria and is well known for its outreach programme — news last month that it had given its top financial student award to the daughter of one of its own benchers highlighted the systemic problems surrounding diversity at the bar.

In her talk, Hallett went on to demand the tackling of this sort of “unconscious bias” that risks seeing “mini-mes” given favourable treatment to ease their progression through the legal profession.

An area that Hallet didn’t address was the lack of publicity given by the bar to its student barrister scholarships — which total a whopping £5 million. With none of the bar’s various governing bodies managing to even send out a press release to flag up today’s Inns scholarship deadline, it’s little wonder that news of the awards tends to only circulate in networks with existing connections to the legal profession.

Recent figures show that 44% of barristers were privately educated; only 7% of the general population went to private schools. And new research by Legal Cheek found that 79% of new tenants at the leading 50 chambers had graduated from Oxford or Cambridge.

Watch Lady Justice Hallett’s talk in full below: