The Bar Standards Board (BSB) is setting up a taskforce to help it cope with a surge of lawyers from Pakistan and Bangladesh seeking to be called to the Bar in England and Wales.
The continuing increase in demand by people to be authorised as a barrister is now the BSB’s “principal” concern about its operational performance, the regulator’s main board heard last week.
The issue first surfaced in October, when the board was told about the big rise in the number of applications for admission to the Bar as a transferring qualified lawyer (TQL), mainly from the Indian sub-continent – even though many appeared to have no intention of practising here.
Last week’s meeting heard that the executive was taking “urgent action to tackle the backlog of authorisation applications” from TQLs by establishing a time-limited taskforce to work through them and free up other staff.
The BSB’s quarterly performance report said: “Despite clearing 240 applications over the quarter – the highest clearance rate since the same quarter of last year – this was easily out-paced by the 350 new applications received – the fifth consecutive quarter in which new applications have exceeded those cleared.
“As a result the caseload has now risen to 650, of which 415 are overdue. Roughly 400 of the outstanding applications are from transferring overseas lawyers.”
Saimi Hirji, the BSB’s interim director of regulatory operations, told the board that there has been no slowdown in the number of applications, the “vast majority” of which were from Bangladesh and Pakistan.
She said the taskforce would be made up of around five people and begin work in January. Applications from those who actually want to practise in England and Wales will be given priority.
Sophie Maddison, the BSB’s head of authorisation operations, added that these were “among the most complex applications that we deal with” and featured a “high number of requests” for reconsiderations of decisions.
These were slowing down the process, she said, and the BSB is currently drafting a new policy to deal with reconsideration requests.
Ms Maddison said the BSB has “no particular insight” into why the application numbers have increased; there were also “quite a lot of solicitors trying to cross-qualify and practise at the Bar as well” at the moment.
Sam Townend KC, vice-chair of the Bar Council, said that while “a number of Indian advocates” have joined chambers in recent times, particularly at the commercial Bar, “what we have not seen in chambers, so far as I’m aware, is increase in the number” of advocates from Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Board members questioned authorising barristers who had no intention of practising in England and Wales and BSB chief executive Mark Neale said this would be addressed as part of its current review of authorisation.
It also 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.
In April this year, the BSB suspended the delivery of online exams for Bar students in Bangladesh and Pakistan after receiving “clear evidence” to support allegations of cheating.
This was followed by the suspension of all online exams and last month the BSB decided that in future it would not allow any online assessments.
All written exams will now be pen and paper exams taken in invigilated halls. For overseas students, these will be at British Council venues.