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Over 500 barristers sign open letter to BSB chairman attacking training reform proposals

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Regulator’s consultation into future bar training closed yesterday

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Over 500 barristers have publicly slammed the Bar Standards Board’s (BSB) proposed training reforms in an open letter to its chairman.

The letter, addressed to Sir Andrew Burns, claims that the alternatives to the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) that have been put forward are “not guided by a proper understanding of the BSB’s statutory objectives of promoting and protecting the public interest.”

Launched back in October, the BSB-led consultation trumpeted several new training options for aspiring barristers. These included the ‘managed pathways’ approach, which promoted new bar-focused law degrees, and the ‘bar specialist’ approach, which would introduce a new super-exam “open to any candidate”. The BSB then invited opinions on this in a consultation that closed yesterday.

The open letter — which has been signed by ex-Lord Chief Justice and Blackstone Chambers barrister Lord Woolfe — continues:

[The consultation paper] fails to identify the underlying cause of the current problems, namely the fact that BPTC provision has become a self-serving industry that has vastly outgrown its raison d’être of training people in preparation for their becoming one of the people who commence providing legal services every year as members of the Bar of England and Wales.

Highlighting what they believe are “serious flaws” with the BSB’s new proposals, the signatories go on to throw their support behind the Bar Council’s alternative approach. Not included in the original consultation paper, the Bar Council and The Council of the Inns of Court (COIC) have suggested splitting the BPTC in two.

Part one would feature the “knowledge-based parts” of the vocational course, such as civil and criminal procedure, with law school attendance at this stage remaining optional. Part two would then see aspiring barristers tackle the “skills-based elements” including advocacy, drafting and conferencing skills. It is at this point that students will have to attend law school.

According to the letter, this approach “represents a practicable and realistic way forward” and would “reduce the overall costs of qualification”. The latest figures show that a place on the BPTC can cost in excess of £19,000 for those wishing to study in London.

Read the open letter in full below:

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33 Comments

Anonymous

It’s astonishing that the Bar are openly stating that they approve a scheme where well off students can pay for a better quality of education.

(3)(12)

Anonymous

Really? Isn’t that the entire basis of the English education system that so many of them did so well by?

I mean, yeah, the attitude sucks. But are you actually astonished?

(3)(5)

Anonymous

yeah, it’s almost like saying that people who can pay for better barristers will get better representation

(0)(0)

Anonymous

That isn’t what they are saying at all. You either haven’t read, or didn’t understand, the BSB consultation paper, or the open letter published above, or any of the debate that has been taking place. Take some time to read the material properly before commenting.

(15)(0)

Anonymous

Woolfe LCJ? Is that the LC equivalent of Thompson LCJ?

(1)(0)

Rzbg

The BPTC is a scam.

(8)(0)

Anonymous

It is people’s own lookout if they want to sink £20k into doing the BPTC when the statistics regarding how unlikely it is that they will get a pupillage are out there.
The delusion that a 2:2 LLB from BPP (I know people with this doing the BPTC there) will ever get them one is of Lord Harleyesque proportion.
Should we protect people from their own stupidity?

(7)(1)

SingaporeSwing

Yes, we should. There is a massive consumer protection issue here. The fees charged for the BPTC are a scandal.

(12)(1)

Anonymous

So should we protect amateur guitarists from buying equipment worth £20k because it will add little to their music and they’ll never make it big, or rubbish tennis players from buying a £2000 racket etc. ?

(2)(2)

Lincoln's Snob

Rubbish analogy. It is the same as arguing that a regulatory body for guitarists should not require every guitarist who wants a shot at making it big to buy equipment worth £20k.

Anonymous

Instead a guitar in two halves of unspecified cost and most of them still won’t be allowed to play

Anonymous

I agree with the comment that the BPTC admits far too many people but splitting in two does not solve the problem. Nor does it solve the problem of extremely well qualified and skilled candidates not able to gain qualification because of the lack of pupillage. It seems to me that given the Law Society has adopted an alternative route for solicitors something similar should be adopted for the Bar.

(1)(11)

Anonymous

It would be interesting to hear constructive comments and feedback on my points rather than simply down rating.

(1)(7)

Anonymous

What is the problem with qualified and skilled candidates (nonetheless not qualified or skilled enough to obtain pupillage) not qualifying?

(0)(0)

Anonymous

I suppose the underlying point that I am trying to make is that the law society has taken steps to help people to qualify, through alternate means than the traditional training contract route. No doubt such persons will still make good lawyers, and therefore, something similar might be considered for the Bar after all, I realise the Bar is somewhat elitist but if it’s good enough for one side of the profession why not the other? Furthermore, the rules as they stand are non-sensical, for example the BPTC becomes null and void after 5 years because supposedly the law and practice would have changed so dramatically, is not right for someone to be able to keep applying for pupillage and yet, you obviously have qualified Barristers who got qualified 30 or 40 years ago, who have no doubt managed to keep abreast of changes so why can’t someone who has done the BPTC? Finally, if you are that determined, you do not even need to do pupillage you can get qualified abroad, do the QLTS, do the solicitor-advocate course and apply for exemption for pupillage which even the BSB states is almost certain to be accepted because again you can do the job, and your qualified to do the job albeit with a different title. The fact that someone has to go through all that though to get round an arbitrary tick box speaks volumes about this country and its rather antiquated training model that is not fit for modern life.

(0)(6)

Anonymous

This makes no sense. Are you suggesting that the Bar should just make extra space because there are people who could make good lawyers? The problem is the lack of spaces at the Bar, not the lack of routes into it. And no you are not “certain to be accepted” if you do that convoluted route you suggest. Try getting into chambers that way if you couldn’t get in the normal way. Not a lot of point being exempt from pupillage if you still can’t get into a chambers. Do you know anything about what you are talking about?

Anonymous

I never said accepted into Chambers I said accepted for an exemption from pupillage which if you read the BSB guidance, this states essentially it’s extremely unlikely they would not allow an exemption from pupillage for someone who is qualified as a solicitor-advocate in both civil and crime, after all what would be the point, they already have higher rights and are presumably already doing the job albeit maybe in a solicitors or in house rather than Chambers? Re do I know anything about this, yes having been working in the legal field for more then 10 years surprisingly I do, I’ve also advised on the consultation re reforming legal education albeit only in a limited capacity. I guess it comes down to the attitudes of the two sides of the profession, one side has seen the problem and taken good steps to solving it the other side has stuff you if you don’t do it the way I did you don’t deserve it. Finally, I should point out I am qualified so this doesn’t affect me but it does affect my friends and therefore I take an interest.

Anonymous

But what’s the point of being exempt from pupillage if you can’t get into chambers?

Anonymous

You would be qualified and able to work elsewhere for example in house. Chambers are not the only employment opportunities for barristers.

Anonymous

I genuinely have no idea what point you are trying to make. What is the point of additional routes to nowhere? There are not enough pupillages. If chambers went with a new different route (for some unexplained reason), it would just mean fewer from the old route would get in.

Anonymous

I repeat it’s not necessarily about Chambers opening up more places. Those able to qualify could then work as barristers elsewhere outside chambers, as qualified lawyers not paralegals as now.

Champ

I am forever indebted to you for this inritmafoon.

Amelia

I could read a book about this without finding such real-world apphaocres!

(0)(0)

Not Amused

I wouldn’t get too hung up on the option to take the extra tuition. The Bar wants the best, always has, always will.

Which is the better candidate? The one who needed to pay for the extra tuition? Or the one who didn’t. Despite appearances, we’re not stupid.

(10)(0)

Amelia

I could read a book about this without finding such real-world appheacros!

(0)(0)

Iami.

Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

(0)(1)

Anonymous

Some observations:

1. Currently, 1000 of the 1500 who enrol on the BPTC pass. If there are 450 pupillages the we’ll still have 550 people who will have wasted their money. That assumes pass rates stay static and there is nothing to contradict that. Arguably as people have infinite goes at part 1 the number getting to part 2 will rise. Anyone who has done the BPTC knows the skills subjects are a doddle compared to crime/ethics/civil.

2. That money won’t be miles away from current costs at the out of London providers. (Note how COIC hasn’t produced any indicative prices save for talk of £12k some years ago).

3. The reason the price won’t be substantially lower is that there is no proposed change to what is taught on the BPTC. Sure there won’t be civil, crime or ethics classes unless you want to pay for them but they aren’t the expensive bit to deliver. Class sizes alone tell you that.

4. Some of those signatories could do with a bit of cash on the side from teaching on this new course. (And many don’t need the money I accept).

5. I have trouble believing that all 500 have read the consultation and the COIC proposals to understand pass rates or the cost of the replacement course.

6. Two of the signatories are lecturers at mid to low ranked Universities (Lancaster and Buckinghamshire New University). Both have something to lose if the BSB pick options B or C. An integrated LLB/BPTC will be provided by University of Law et al. Coupled with the SRA proposals and we could see a shrinking number of law departments away from the ‘top’ Universities.

(1)(0)

Bothered

Anyone who’s done the BPTC recently (me three years ago) would tell you that the problem is much worse even than this letter makes it sound and the Bar Council solution is by far the best. The point of letting the knowledge based stuff be done through books is that you will no longer be forced to pay to sit in a class of 12 being taught rules that you have to learn by rote in the end. You spend one year doing 4 days a week, when the whole thing could be crammed in a matter of months. There is simply no challenging material there to justify group learning.

And yet of the 12 in my class, only 2 of us ever got pupillages. Indeed, 5 failed the course (3 failed EVERY single module and EVERY single resit and of those, 1 went on to pay to do the course again the following year). That they could do so is shocking – there is a lot to learn off by heart, but that is it – it is at pre-GCSE level of difficulty. Most of the people I knew who had/got pupillages that year got the two highest levels of grade in the final exams, by virtue of a few weeks’ cramming at the end.

There were people in my class who were hard workers, but who could not understand the difference between a rule saying someone ‘must’ do something and someone ‘may’ do it, even after this was explained to them for 30 minutes (which of course the rest of us had paid to sit through). I remember someone eagerly putting up their hand to answer the question “When are you permitted to serve a witness summary instead of a witness statement?” with the answer “You have to pay them travel expenses”. And then not understanding why that didn’t answer the question.

Needless to say these were people with 2:2 LLBs from degree-machine universities, who had absolutely no hope of getting a pupillage. That the law schools will take their £16k (as it then was), and take it repeatedly if they wish to redo the year after failing, is atrocious.

At least if the knowledge-based exams filtered out these people from advancing to the practical stage, where you have a lot to learn (albeit if it is still easy to pass), that stage could be much more useful for those left in the mix. Imagine trying to do a cross-examination when the classmate playing your witness cannot remember, no matter how many times they are reminded, which character they are supposed to be playing. Or when every single class for an entire year someone has to have it explained to them again the difference between ‘open’ and ‘closed’ questions.

It was a painful year and it would be brilliant if future generations of barristers could be better served.

(22)(0)

Not Amused

I just wanted to let you know that I read your comment in full and that I will remember it.

(4)(0)

QV

It is a straightforward lie to say that the BPTC is simple. I am an Oxford graduate, with a very desirable pupillage. The centrally-set exams were as hard as anything that I encountered at undergraduate level. I remember many of my Oxford and Cambridge-educated friends looking like they had seen a ghost after the Civil Litigation exam last year. Several students at my provider who had secured a pupillage still managed to fail the occasional module. By saying that the course can be passed with ‘a few weeks’ cramming’, you do a profound disservice to those students who might be tempted to follow your advice. Bright students, such as those you encountered on your course, routinely lie about the amount of work they are doing. I certainly did.

(3)(2)

Not Amused

Did you pass your degree?

(2)(0)

Anonymous

My experience of the BPTC was as the post above describes.

There was a lot to deal with (simply because the timetable was so crammed) but the content was not difficult. Civ Lit, Crim lit and ethics lend themselves to self teaching with additional support by way of short revision classes if necessary. It was not useful to read through CPR together in a seminar.

I wholly support what the Bar Council are trying to do and shame on the BSB for ignoring it in the first consultation.

(1)(0)

Betsy

It’s spooky how clever some ppl are. Thaskn!

(0)(0)

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