Bar Council brands BSB aptitude pass mark rise ‘inadequate’

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Bar’s regulator and representative body in stand-off over BPTC entrance exam


The Bar Council has said that changes to the Bar Course Aptitude Test (BCAT), which include raising the pass mark to filter out weaker wannabe candidates, do not go far enough.

Yesterday, the Bar Standards Board (BSB) confirmed a number of changes to the BCAT, including upping the pass mark by eight points, from 37 to 45 points.

With the rise coming into force in 2017 — pending Legal Services Board approval — the BSB argues that the change would ensure weaker candidates don’t start a course they might well fail.

However, the Bar Council has now waded into the debate, branding the rise as “inadequate”. Clashing with the BSB, the bar representative’s policy analyst, Alex Cisneros, suggested that more needed to be done.

To act as an effective “gatekeeping function”, Cisneros argues in favour of a pass mark that would go one step further, and “filter out students who have no reasonable prospect of obtaining pupillage or practising as a barrister”.

Echoing the sentiments of Cisneros, Chantal-Aimée Doerries QC, chairman of the bar, also argued in favour of raising the, er, bar. Citing the high number of BPTC graduates who have little or no hope of securing pupillage, she said:

One of the messages I hear consistently on circuit visits is that the system is producing large numbers of applicants who have little or no prospect of obtaining pupillage or practising as a barrister. These arrangements build false hope for too many students at too high a cost.

Further changes unveiled by the BSB yesterday included students being provided with an actual assessment score, not just a pass or fail indicator. This, according to the regulator, will allow aspiring barristers to gauge how well they will perform on the BPTC.

The aptitude test, that costs already cash-strapped students £150 a pop, has been met with fierce criticism since its introduction in 2013. Many students have suggested the exam is almost impossible to fail, and simply another excuse to squeeze yet more cash from those pursuing a career at the bar.

In light of the changes, it appears public opinion hasn’t changed. When announced on Legal Cheek yesterday, news of the pass mark rise was met with a wave negative comments.

One reader described the entire set up as a “scandal”, while another pointed out that the BCAT — that re-opens on 4 April — is also the deadline for accepting first round offers from several BPTC providers. Continuing, they said:

I am being asked to pay £150 for a test in order to make an informed decision on whether to proceed with a course I’ll have already put down hundreds of pounds for in deposit. In what world does this make sense?

BSB director of education and training Dr Simon Thornton-Wood told Legal Cheek:

The BCAT is an excellent indicator of how well a student is likely to do on the BPTC, and we are now making the score available to students so they can make an informed decision as to whether they want to proceed to the BPTC. More than 70 per cent of students in previous years took the BCAT in April or even later, which makes this year’s timing not significantly different from previous years.

He continued:

The BSB does not control the number of pupillages available, nor can we restrict how many places universities offer on the BPTC — subject to providers meeting minimum resourcing criteria, we are obliged to leave the number of places on offer to the market.


Aptitude test pass mark raised to ‘exclude’ weaker wannabe barristers [Legal Cheek]


Lee Travers

i think that we should get rid of pigeons in cities and towns. their filthy and they spread disease. i used to play with them in the street but my grandad stopped me because i got scabies. Or we should all just turn into pigeons and then they wont be able to spread disease to us, because we’ll all be pigones!



Dr Simon Thornton-Wood: “…nor can we restrict how many places universities offer on the BPTC”

What is wrong with this man?! Does he really not get it?

The problem isn’t the number of PLACES on the Bar Course, it’s the number of STUDENTS. The problem is the low entry standards and the low aptitude of those admitted.

Raise the entry standards. Stop coming up with fatuous, inane excuses. And stop allowing the providers to exploit vulnerable students.



Me want be barristar!



The irony of Cisneros chiming in about pupillage prospects of others when he has yet to secure one himself, is wonderful.



Alex does not like this comment.



OK, serious question: What’s wrong with restricting BPTC places to only those who have pupillages secured?

I appreciate this would mean that perhaps the system of awarding pupillage has to change… but then maybe the system ought to change? Given that the BPTC is largely irrelevant unless you become a barrister, isn’t it actually desirable to make sure that people who aren’t going to do a pupillage don’t spend large amounts of money on a course with (for them at least) pretty much zero value?



“isn’t it actually desirable to make sure that people who aren’t going to do a pupillage don’t spend large amounts of money on a course with (for them at least) pretty much zero value?”

Not for the institutions charging £15k a pop for it.



Having to show that you can get pupillage before undertaking the bar course is a fantastic idea (although understandably the providers would never accept it).

Everytime this entirely sensible suggestion is raised, a load of people who got pupillage during the Bar course chime in. However, they miss the point. The concern isn’t for people who are able to get pupillage, it’s for those with no realistic chance. Applying is a roll of the dice for even very able candidates. The individuals with little to no chance (probably the majority on the bar course) are the ones the providers are able to exploit with the very high fees.

Apart from anything else, virtually all chambers recruit over a year in advance, so you will always have a spare year to do the course, plus the possibility of drawdown to help with the (ludicrously high) fees.



I don’t think they are so much the problem as certain types of chambers who won’t consider you before you’re on the Bptc. Students are therefore screwed as a result.



What happens when someone is offered pupillage before the BPTC but fails the course? All parties screwed then and there are no alternative candidates to take the place.


Bazzah Jr.

This is why chambers have reserve candidates


Yes but then the reserve may have to do the course and not get pupillage at the end of it


This is fair. But it cannot be insurmountable. What is the proportion of students failing the BPTC? It can’t be that high – so suggest a very small risk in reality. And not one that can be used to justify a system that simply doesn’t work.

Here’s (just one) idea to fill the gaps: hire a transferring solicitor. The BTT is ludicrously short (and even more ludicrously expensive) and can easily be fitted in between the 2017 gateway opening date and the start of pupillage. I’ll bet there are plenty of other solutions too.

Not Amused

“I don’t think they are so much the problem as certain types of chambers who won’t consider you before you’re on the Bptc. Students are therefore screwed as a result.”

The bad chambers.



Exactly, and as I said in my earlier comment “maybe the system ought to change” – maybe chambers should be more open to offering pupillage to those who have not done the BPTC.

At the end of the day, of course, if you couldn’t sit the BPTC until you’ve secured pupillage then chambers simply couldn’t choose not to consider students who haven’t already sat and passed the BPTC…


The problem of restricting places on the BPTC only to those with pupillage is that the exceptional reputation of British legal education means that a large number of foreign students undertake the BPTC, with no intention of securing pupillage. They then return to their home countries with that qualification which, even if it does not grant them exemptions from the entry requirements for the professions in their own countries, often massively increases the chances of securing a job in that jurisdiction. You would be turning that entire section of the market away, and forcing them to look elsewhere, for example, the United States, and in so doing we can in “brand UK”.

You are also ignoring the fact that the BPTC has a five year “shelf life” within which the student can obtain pupillage. A number of students do in fact get pupillage in the first, second third or even fourth year following leaving the BPTC, often having augmented their skills with some practical legal experience that for whatever reason they were not able to get whilst at university. You would be telling all of these students who ARE going on to become barristers that they are not permitted to do so.

Finally, why is it that the Bar more than any other profession is expected to apologise for being so popular an option that there are more people wanting to get into it than there are places available for them to do so? The veterinary or medical professions, or the accountants etc do not have to apologise for the fact that every year many people fail the assessments necessary to become qualified, or fail to achieve the employment position that they hoped for. Why is it that with regard to this particular profession, we are expected to say to people “you are not entitled to even try!”



If the pupillage no-hopers fully appreciate that once they have parted with a large chunk of money, they will have a useless qualification, and do so willingly, what is the problem? No one is forcing them to do this course. If they want to do it and get called to the bar, and subsequently not practice, that is there decision.



If they fully appreciate it, there is no problem. But your argument relies on a false premise. The truth is that they don’t fully appreciate it and the providers are able to exploit their naivety.



I acknowledge your point, but if someone who has their sights set on a career at the bar cannot exercise even the smallest amount of foresight as to financial implications of a) enrolling on this course; and b) likely earnings during the first few years of practice, together with the likelihood of securing one of c.400 pupillages in the midst of unrivaled competition, are they themselves not to blame, rather than the institutions that take their money and let them have a punt at it? Its not especially difficult to find out how tough and expensive it is to become a barrister in this day and age, and whilst I agree with you that providers charge an inordinate amount for a course that (at least when I finished it in 2014) was largely based on regurgitating the White Book and Archbold, I cannot see how they exploit those who can’t simply Google what to expect.


Quo Vadis

Are students able to properly predict likely earnings during the first few years of practice? Members of the Bar are notoriously coy about earnings. Equally, are students able to properly predict the health of the Bar as a whole over the next few years? Even seasoned practitioners disagree about that. I am sympathetic to the argument that we should allow adults to make their own mistakes in life, but when those mistakes lead to thousands of (often talented) students being left in debt slavery and despair then the regulators need to step in. They have singularly failed to do so and that is a shame that benights the Bar as a whole.



Yep. You can generally assume that whatever you hear about earnings at the junior Bar is generally bullshit.




Another way

The BCAT is far too easy as it is. But is raising the pass score likely to have any substantial impact on the issues facing the junior end of the Bar? I doubt it.

It makes far more sense to take a market based solution. If the objective is fewer people take the BPTC in order to limit the prospects of people failing to attain pupillage, then there are a few things which can work.

Firstly, you need to identify an incentivise the providers to be more ruthless with who, and how many, they let in. One simple idea is making mandatory provisions which require providers to allow people who do not get pupillage to either a partial refund or a place on an alternative course, be it the LPC or something else.

Something else which would help would be limiting fees. This could be mandated by the BSB and perhaps bought in line with normal tuition fees (arguably still too high) or artificially by removing major funding sources or re-directing them. For example if the Inns stopped giving out scholarships (unlikely I know) then either the amount of people on the course would drop significantly or fees would drop. I suspect the latter, particularly if an arrangement could be made between the Inns and providers that they would still supply them with money (this time for everyone’s benefit). Such a solution could see closer ties between Inns and providers and see the Inns begin to re-establish a more meaningful role in the profession itself.

There are plenty of creative solutions out there.


Quo Vadis

You will never ‘incentivise’ the providers to enroll fewer students. If they enroll fewer students, they go bust.



I was offered pupillage at 10 sets. I turned them all down because:

(a) I’m a badass; and

(b) They were meanies.



The BCAT is not an indicator as to who will pass or who will fail the BPTC. Before the introduction of the BCAT students pursued the BPTC: some passed and some failed. The issue is not weeding out the weak wannabe barristers. The BSB needs to look at the structure of the whole BPTC since moving the assessments away from the providers. The issue is letting applicants know the detailed structure of the BPTC program, structure and timetable of its exams, and the marking scheme, so students can make a better informed decision to pursue the BPTC. Currently, students enter the BPTC program in September and are expected to do first formal assessments in November, March and April, and if they fail they have to wait until the following year August to resit. Students are also required to know the substantial courses of Civil and Criminal procedures in six months. So students (especially international students) who did not pursue the UK Criminal and Civil procedures in their qualifying LLB may find it difficult to cover a substantial percentage of the course work of those two courses, plus learn the Ethics modules, all in six months. Hence the BCAT is not an indicator of how well a student will perform on the BPTC. The BSB needs to get rid of the Suggestive Ambiguous Questions (SAQs) of the Ethics module, and have a fair and reasonable marking scheme.

Most international students who pursue the Bar in the UK choose the option NOT TO PRACTICE in the UK and hence do not apply for pupillage in the UK. These are the students who are most vulnerable. The providers accept them, take their moneys, many of the students are assessed not competent, receive no BPTC certificate, and return home with large student debts and no prospects of an increase earnings in their home country. Would the BSB be introducing an exam to weed out the “weaker” international students to deter them from wasting their moneys on the BPTC; where they have a greater risk of failing than passing?



I wonder if the higher pass rate will mean BPP and ULaw actually ask for your BCAT certificate at enrolment? They certainly didn’t this year.

Even the providers think it’s a joke.



Legal Cheek, can you find out what percentage of those who take the BCAT pass? I suspect it must be close to 100%.



I found that stat: in 2012/13 only 0.6% (13 students) were unable to pass the BCAT after one or more attempts.

WOW! Students have to pay £150 to take a test to show that they are one of the 99.4%.



I was part of the year that took the test for the BSB whilst on the BPTC, so as to give them an indication of pass rates etc. I was hungover, possibly still drunk, from the night before and I passed with flying colours (and would do on the new pass rate)…really not good threshold criteria!



Blame competition law. It isnt the BSB- the legal services board has overall oversight, and they have mandated that:
-The BPTC is like a “franchise”, and the BSB must allow any entity who meets the minimum requirements to run it;
-It must be offered on the market;
-There can be absolutely no restrictions on the number of places set by the BSB, as this would limit the profits to be made by the providers unfairly in contravention of the Legal Services Board commitment to marketisation of legal training

What we need is a reform in the law, to carve out an exception in competition law; or petition the Legal Services Board to use its statutory powers to exempt the BPTC/mandate market controls.


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