The Bar Standards Board’s (BSB) plans to strengthen public access training for newly qualified barristers in client care are inadequate and should include extensive supervision to ensure competence as is required of trainee solicitors, according to the Law Society.
But Bar Council chair Maura McGowan QC has argued that junior barristers often already have significant experience of contact with clients.
Criticising the BSB’s proposed new public access training scheme, details of which were presented at the board’s main board meeting earlier this month, the society warned that training was no substitute for practising client-care skills under supervision.
Under the BSB plans, which have been submitted to the Legal Services Board for approval, any qualified barrister will be allowed to undertake public access work involving direct contact with clients. Training courses devised by private providers that meet set outcomes will last at least 12 hours – compared to the present one-day approved courses.
The review followed the BSB’s decision last July to lift a prohibition on barristers of under three years’ call doing public access work. It also removed a bar on clients that qualify for legal aid receiving advice from barristers directly. Barristers under three years’ call will have to keep a log of public access cases available for inspection by the BSB.
A Law Society spokesman said it viewed the BSB’s proposed training regime as insufficient and argued that when a barrister dealt directly with a client, they would need someone to ensure they were competent to do the work.
“It isn’t just about the length of training. Solicitors are under supervision for the first three years so that there is a senior person able to supervise work and deal with consumer concerns. This doesn’t apply to the Bar and no amount of training is going to be able to address the need for supervision.”
Ms McGowan said there was no evidence for the Law Society’s claim, pointing out that barristers have had supervision throughout their training. She added that in areas such as family and crime, barristers dealt directly with clients all the time, especially since barristers have been allowed to take witness statements.
“You never see solicitors with barristers at court these days – I’m not complaining about that, it’s just the way the system has turned out,” she said, noting also that client care is to be introduced into the barrister qualification.
The new BSB training course will also include expert assessment and an emphasis on “identifying and managing vulnerable clients”. Under the current scheme, public access training courses are completed within one day and involve no assessment. As a transitional arrangement, those who have done the course already will have to complete a ‘top-up’ course within 24 months or apply for a waiver.
The board acknowledged that increasing the course from one day to two and adding assessment would mean the cost is likely to increase, ultimately from around £300 to between £800-1000 and that fees at this level would “act as a deterrent to some barristers”.
In a paper approved by the BSB’s board, a series of recommendations for improving the public access training course were made, including ensuring that barrister-client interactions are a core component, that an external examiner is appointed, that no more than 20 candidates attend the same course, and that providers offer a range of payment options.