Making membership of the Inns of Court optional for barristers would disadvantage those with the least “social capital”, the Bar Council has warned.
Responding to plans from the Bar Standards Board  (BSB) to shake up training, the Bar Council strongly defended the role of the Inns, the minimum 12-month period for pupillages, and compulsory Inns of Court dinners for students.
The Bar Council warned that any attempt to transfer roles from the Inns to the BSB or to reduce the role of the Inns in education and training would “disadvantage those with least social capital”, since membership provided a “level playing field” at the early stages of entry to the profession.
“Joining an Inn should be a leveller. It does not matter whether you are the child of a judge, or have never met a barrister before in your life – you can join an Inn and you will have the same opportunity to meet barristers and judges, as well as to meet your own peer group.
“We agree with the BSB’s suggestion that if membership of an Inn were made optional, it is likely to be those most in need of what the Inns can offer who would be the most likely to choose not to join, because they feel socially different, or are nervous because they will not be part of a group of friends who will be joining together.”
The Bar Council said the Inns played a “fundamental role in nurturing and developing the shared culture of the Bar” and the “moral imperative” to uphold high professional standards.
“We do not believe that the benefits provided by Inn membership could be effectively replicated by any other institution, because there are no other institutions that can currently offer repeated contact both with practising members of the profession of a range of seniority, and with judges.”
The Bar Council said it was “very firmly of the view” that there should be no change to the minimum length of pupillages from the existing 12 months and it was “unaware of any view” from practitioner or organisation that there should be a reduction, including the employed Bar.
It said the mandatory minimum provided structure for the planning of training, allowed chambers and employers to “exchange ideas about best practice with relative ease” and gave potential pupils predictability and certainty.
The Bar Council also opposed the idea that pupil supervisors should be allowed to supervise more than one pupil.
“If the BSB relaxes this requirement, we foresee that a two-tier system will emerge, with better qualified (and therefore more marketable) pupils being those under single supervision.
“Again, this two-tier system is likely to impact primarily the publicly funded bar, which we regard as undesirable for obvious reasons.”
However, it supported the suggestion in the BSB consultation that minimum pupillage awards should increase from the current £12,000, to the Living Wage Foundation benchmark, which would amount to £17,745 in London.
Given that 35% of pupillage awards were for less than £20,000, and the Bar Council said the pupillage matched funding scheme run by the Council of the Inns of Court should be used to help avoid the “unintended consequence” of fewer pupillages being offered.
On ‘qualifying sessions’, which include compulsory dinners at the Inns of Court for students before they are called to the Bar, the Bar Council said there was an educational component and “the opportunity to mingle with practising barristers, judges and their contemporaries”.
The Bar Council noted the number of qualifying sessions had been reduced from 36 to 12, and for those outside London, translated into only three trips to the capital.
“The Inns welcome students into the community of barristers and develop in them a sense of responsibility and shared values in a way that cannot be achieved outside this unique institution. Qualifying sessions are central to this.”