Deferring point of call for barristers “could improve social mobility”

Vineall: System can encourage the wrong people

Delaying the point at which barristers are called to the Bar until after obtaining pupillage could improve social mobility if it cuts the number of overseas students and “less able domestic students” in the system, the chair of the Bar Council has said.

Nick Vineall KC said that for “really bright, sensible and ambitious” young people who had “no bank of Mum and Dad”, the Bar looked “distinctly unattractive by comparison with becoming a solicitor”.

He first raised his concerns about the fact barristers are called after completing the Bar training course in his inaugural speech as chair in January and in September said people should be called when they have completed pupillage, with the possibility of a “provisional call” to cover the second six months.

Expounding on his view in the Bar Council’s Counsel magazine this month, Mr Vineall and Fallon Alexis, vice-chair of its education and training committee, said: “Some people have told us that they would support deferral of call but for concerns they have about its impact on social mobility.

“We don’t believe there is any conflict – if we did then we wouldn’t support deferral of call. In fact, we suspect we will be able to do more as a profession to promote social mobility if we do defer call.”

The barristers went on: “If the impact of deferring call is that there are markedly fewer overseas students, and that the less able domestic students are also put off to some extent, the inns will be able to focus their finite resources much more closely on those who not only intend to practise here, but who have a real prospect of actually doing so. That, we believe, is the way to improve social mobility.”

We have been reporting recently on the surge of overseas applicants seeking to be called, with the Bar Standards Board (BSB) suggesting that many have no intention of practicing in England and Wales.

The article said the current system was “likely to discourage some of the young people who do have what it takes” and actually ought to be encouraged.

“If you are a really bright, sensible and ambitious 20-something, but with no bank of Mum and Dad to support you, and you are trying to decide whether to go for the Bar or be a solicitor, we have created a system that makes the Bar looks distinctly unattractive by comparison with becoming a solicitor.

“So not only do we have a system that sometimes encourages the wrong people, but we fear that we are discouraging some of the best people.”

Mr Vineall and Ms Alexis said there were about 17,000 barristers in England and Wales with a practising certificate, but over 70,000 people “entitled to say they are a barrister”. This created confusion “both for barristers and for the public”.

Unregistered barristers were a “frequent subject of enquiries” to the Bar Council’s ethical enquiries helpline and the practising Bar had to fund “the (ever-more-expensive) BSB, which then has to regulate all 70,000 plus barristers” at the expense of the 17,000.

“The only way to solve these problems in the long run is to defer call until after pupillage has been obtained, so that the title barrister really means something again.”

At the recruitment stage, although “certainly not” in terms of progression and retention, the Bar was “well on the way to a race-neutral, gender-neutral intake”.

However, barristers should ask themselves “whether we are entirely comfortable that – of those who disclose the relevant information – about 35% of the current intake to the practising Bar is privately educated as against 18% of the A-Level cohort and only 8% of all secondary school pupils”.

If call to the Bar was deferred, it was expected that “fewer people will do the Bar courses here”, because it “may not be so attractive to overseas students” and “it may also put off some home students”.

Some people embarked on the Bar course who had “little prospect of ever securing pupillage” – if you have a 2:2 degree, you have only about a 1 in 10 chance of securing pupillage. The current system “artificially encourages some people who probably should not be encouraged”.

What was needed was “focused and sustained support on promising individuals, as opposed to a system which indiscriminately allows almost everyone into the first stage (the Bar course) and then at the next stage (pupillage) cruelly disappoints almost half of those whom we have encouraged to embark on an expensive course”.

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