The Bar Standards Board (BSB) has reported a surge of lawyers from the Indian sub-continent seeking to be called to the Bar in England and Wales – even though many appear to have no intention of practising here.
It follows the recent call by Bar Council chair Nick Vineall KC that only those who have completed pupillage should be allowed to call themselves barristers.
Last week’s meeting of the BSB’s main board heard there were 498 applications for admission to the Bar as a transferring qualified lawyer (TQL) in the year to 31 March 2023, an increase of more than 200 on the previous year.
The trend “appears to be continuing” this year, with the latest figures, for April to June 2023, showing 400 TQL applications, a 173% increase on the same period last year.
The BSB’s annual regulatory decision-making report for 2022/23, put before the board meeting, said: “Around a fifth of applications received during this reporting period were from solicitors qualified in England and Wales attempting to cross-qualify. The biggest regional grouping of applications, however, was those from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.
“Collectively, this grouping amounted to almost half of all TQL applications received during this reporting period.”
The report said it was unclear why so many applications were coming from this region.
“It is possible that we are seeing a post-Covid-19 peak in application submissions from individuals who chose to delay their applications during the lockdown periods for financial reasons, or due to their inability to travel to England and Wales to complete assessments as Bar Transfer Test candidates or undertake periods of pupillage.”
In a discussion on the issue, BSB director general Mark Neale said: “We suspect these applications are made because many of these overseas lawyers want the distinction of being called to the Bar.”
They needed to be distinguished from those who actually came here to practise, he said.
Board member Jeff Chapman KC stressed the long-standing links between English and Welsh barristers and Indian law firms for cases outside of India.
“This is a matter of soft influence and the English legal system being an important one around the world,” he said.
Andrew Mitchell KC, vice-chair of the BSB, agreed that the “historical connection” was worth “a great deal in soft rather than in hard currency”.
But the numbers of illustrated how it was easy to be called to the Bar without any intention to practise. “There may be a suggestion that Indian lawyers feel the need to get a piece of paper that perhaps they don’t need,” he said.
Bar Council vice-chair Sam Townend, an observer at the meeting, said it was looking at this issue and was happy to work with the BSB to “unpack” the underlying reasons. He noted that, in recent years, there have been some “very distinguished” Indian practitioners joining commercial and construction chambers.
Another observer, James Wakefield, director of the Council of the Inns of Court, said training providers for the transfer test were promoting it “in a way not seen before”.
He added that the inns of courts were “beginning to look” at the call issue raised by Mr Vineall.
The BSB report said that, with TQL applications “among the most complex” dealt with by its authorisations team – and making up 42% of its caseload in the year, compared to 28% the year before – the increase contributed to its performance, already well short of timeliness targets, worsening.
For example, only 70% of authorisation applications were determined within 12 weeks, against a target of 98%. In 2021/22, the figure was 82%.
“Applicants are also more likely to challenge conditions imposed, which has resulted in a significant number of requests for applications to be reconsidered by the team.
“The team has been reviewing its approach to reconsiderations and will shortly publish a policy clarifying the circumstances in which an application will be reconsidered.”
In his speech, Mr Vineall said that, of those under 50 years’ call, there were currently 17,304 practising barristers, 10,412 unregistered barristers who have practised in the past, and 37,013 unregistered barristers who have never practised. ‘Unregistered’ is the term used for non-practising barristers.