Covid knock-on puts future pupillage numbers under pressure

Hanmer: Laudable commitment to sustaining pupillages

The number of chambers delaying pupillages that were due to start this month or next is likely to have a knock-on effect on the supply of places until 2022, the Bar Standards Board (BSB) said today.

The biggest impact has been in the areas of law most affected by court closures, particularly those in family and crime.

In a report on the impact Covid-19 is having on pupillages, the BSB said the profession has shown “tremendous commitment” to sustaining them – only two of the pupillages that had already started when lockdown began in March had to be temporarily suspended, because their pupil supervisors at the employed Bar were furloughed.

The report was based on engagement with 157 out of the 260 chambers and other organisations that provide pupillage (known as authorised education and training organisations, or AETOs). Of the 157, 133 currently have pupils.

Whilst the overall picture for existing pupils was “very positive”, the BSB said it was clear that AETOs felt the quality of training they have been able to deliver has not always matched the usual “quality and richness of experience”.

Given that most pupillages start in the autumn, the pupils were just entering the practising period at the time of lockdown and 17 AETOs are considering extending, or have already decided to extend, the practising period so they can sign off their pupils as having met the required competences.

The BSB said 41% of AETOs with pupils admitted they may not be able to make tenancy decisions based on the limited court experience the pupils have had, although in some cases they also wanted to protect pupils who will not have had a chance to build up their self-employed practice.

“Extending the period of pupillage rather than launching them into practice at a time when ‘normality’ is far from certain, will give them a chance to build their practice and continue to receive financial support from chambers,” the report said.

Some 110 prospective pupils at 74 AETOs were affected by the delays in taking the Bar professional training course, and 44 of the AETOs indicated that they would use the BSB waiver allowing their 60 pupils to progress to the non-practising period of pupillage before finding out if they passed.

A further 19 AETOs have decided to defer the start dates for 33 pupils, most for three to six months only, “to enable recovery from the financial consequences of court closures and to enable the pupils to start their pupillages when they anticipate that more courts will be functioning, so there will be better conditions for training pupils”.

Only two of the 19 cited the rescheduling of the exams as being the reason for deferring start dates. No planned pupillages have been abandoned.

But 17 AETOs indicated that deferral decisions taken now “will, or are likely to, impact the number of pupils recruited in 2021 and 2022”.

Separate to the waiver issue, 35 AETOs confirmed they intended to delay planned start dates anyway, “which may have the effect of reducing the overall number of pupillages being offered over the coming years”.

Fifteen have changed the start date by one to three months, 14 by four to six months, and six deferred pupils for a year.

The BSB said the decisions for longer deferrals were driven mainly by financial pressures, as well as prioritising current pupils. It has received no reports of offers being withdrawn.

Three-quarters of AETOs that responded to a BSB survey earlier in the year were continuing with recruitment that was then in progress.

The BSB noted that, since lockdown, only two chambers have closed, plans for which were already in motion beforehand for one of them.

The regulator said it was conscious that barristers with protected characteristics were more strongly represented in the publicly funded areas of practice worst hit by Covid19 and pledged to monitor the impact on pupillage and diversity at the Bar.

BSB director of regulatory operations Oliver Hanmer said: “While we are pleased that chambers and other organisations demonstrated a laudable commitment to sustaining pupillages, we are very conscious that many face continued financial pressure due to the consequences of the health emergency. We are doing our best to encourage and facilitate chambers to support as many pupillages as possible.”

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