Bar Council clashes with BSB over scrapping degree requirement

Townend: BSB taking wrong approach

The Bar Council has strongly attacked plans by the Bar Standards Board (BSB) to scrap the requirement that Bar students must have at least a lower second-class degree.

Sam Townend KC, chair of the Bar Council, accused the regulator of lowering standards and “ramping up” the number of disappointed Bar students who would fail to find a pupillage.

He warned the move would transfer decisions from the BSB, “the regulator formally tasked with the job”, to training providers who were “not accountable and who have a clear financial interest in maximising the number of students taking up Bar training”.

The BSB hit back, arguing that it was not “proposing any change in the threshold of competence for training as a barrister – merely a change to the way that it is expressed”.

The regulator said it did not anticipate a “significant change” in the number of Bar students, “given that we are not altering the competence threshold”.

Would-be barristers currently need a law degree or alternatively a degree in another subject plus the graduate diploma in law (GDL) to join the Bar training course. The degree must be at least a 2:2. Students who do not meet the requirements can apply to the BSB for an exemption.

The BSB said that the existing regime did not take into account “qualifications that can be regarded as equivalent” to a UK law degree or non-law degree and GDL, the “most obvious perhaps” being successful completion of part one of the Solicitors Qualifying Exam.

The BSB launched a consultation on its training reforms in January. In it the regulator described standards for academic legal training as “overly prescriptive and difficult to understand”, which created “a complex system of applications for exemptions from, and waivers of, those requirements”.

Rather than requiring a minimum 2:2 degree, training providers should decide whether a candidate was “ready to start the vocational training, taking into account a holistic view of their training, experience and academic record”.

In its response, the Bar Council said it was “strongly of the view” that the BSB should continue to set qualification requirements, keeping its decision-making powers, including exemption decisions.

It went on: “Just as a member of the public would (rightly) expect a doctor to have studied and really understand medicine before being permitted to treat them, a member of the public would (and should) expect a barrister to be academically capable and really know and understand the law.

“That is particularly important given that, unlike newly qualified solicitors or paralegals in law firms, barristers work without direct supervision.”

The Bar Council described the plans as “deeply concerning” and “fundamentally unsound”.

Training course providers were under “their own pressures, including commercial pressures, which the BSB would be most unwise to ignore” and would have an “inappropriate conflict of interest” from which the regulator was obliged to protect prospective students. “Publication of pupillage outcomes, institution by institution, is not adequate.”

Mr Townend said: “The clear intent of the regulator’s intended reform is to increase yet further the numbers taking Bar training courses, inevitably ramping up further the numbers of students who will have paid the high level of fees but be disappointed in not obtaining a pupillage. We think this is the wrong approach.”

A BSB spokesman said it had “always been the case” that people who did not have a 2.2 degree or above could apply to it for waivers.

“We simply think that the academic institution at which they propose to study is better equipped to make this assessment.”

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