A model of training barristers that would split the Bar professional training course (BPTC) into two – allowing students to learn procedure and evidence however they want before undergoing compulsory skills training – has been put forward by the Bar Council and Council of the Inns of Court (COIC) as another alternative to the Bar Standards Board’s (BSB) current consultation on training reform.
Its backers claim that by breaking up the BPTC – currently a 30-week on-site course costing between £15,000 and £19,000 plus living costs – it will be cheaper for poorer students and provide a breathing space in which those unlikely to obtain a pupillage can think again before proceeding.
The BSB future Bar training consultation was published in October and followed an earlier consultation carried out in 2015. Instead of closing for comments on 23 December, the BSB has now extended the deadline to 5pm on 31 January 2017 to allow for comments on the Bar Council/COIC blueprint.
The new option adds to the existing three: an evolutionary approach much the same as at present, a ‘managed pathway’ approach involving various routes to authorisation – the option preferred by the BSB – and a Bar ‘specialist’ approach which would create a new qualifying examination.
Currently in order to qualify as a barrister, there is just one route: a university degree, followed by successfully passing the BPTC, then undertaking a 12-months pupillage.
Under the new proposal, part one of the BPTC would be knowledge-based learning of civil and criminal procedure and evidence, which would continue to be centrally examined by the BSB.
However, it said: “Candidates will be entitled to prepare separately for part 1 by any method they think fit or can afford, including by private study, having the choice but without the requirement of attendance at any particular provider’s course.”
Part two, requiring formal attendance, would consist of the remaining skills-based elements of the BPTC, including advocacy, drafting in all its forms and ethics, and conferencing skills.
In its addendum to the consultation, the Bar Council and COIC argued that the overall cost to students would be “significantly reduced” and enable anyone “anywhere in the world” to prepare for the BPTC.
They pointed out that currently the high cost of qualifying was “exacerbated by the high risk of failure”. Of 2012/13 students, 30 months after completing the taught course, 15% had failed and 7% had exams outstanding.
Further, the self-employed and employed Bar took on just 400 pupils per year, meaning that a successful BPTC candidate who passed at the basic level of ‘competent’ had only a one in 20 chance of obtaining a pupillage – whereas the odds for those passing at ‘very competent’ or ‘outstanding’ were “quite significantly better”.
A split syllabus would also give average students a chance to pause for thought before they spent more on the more costly second part: “Candidates, even if they passed part one, would have the opportunity to review their career choice at that stage, perhaps having researched more thoroughly the market for pupillage, or considered their own inclinations and abilities, before committing themselves to the next and more expensive stage in the training.
“If it appeared, for example, that they were unlikely to achieve a high grade, they would be able to re-assess their position at that point.”
There were also various educational benefits, said the pair, such as giving people who were all graduates more flexibility in choosing how to study.
There might be a benefit to those who continued from encouraging weaker candidates to quit early: “It may… be expected that the early elimination of candidates with poor prospects will have some beneficial effect on the teaching and learning in part two.”
The Bar Council and COIC denied the scheme would mean that training providers with lower success rates would be forced out of the market. On the contrary, they would have to “innovate by offering high-quality skills courses”, they said.
Equally, the scheme would not necessarily favour providers based in the capital: “We challenge the assumption that our proposals may have the effect that regional providers will stop offering the Bar course, and training will become London-centric.
“While some students may indeed desert old-style courses in favour of new-style courses, that should open up a valuable opportunity for providers to offer two skills courses each year.”
Response was swift from Helen Hudson, head of legal development at Nottingham Law School. She said: “We have worked with the Bar for many years to integrate learning of skills, legal principles and practical application. The proposals appear to divorce the key elements required for effective practice. The integration of the various elements of practical legal skills is essential if we are to produce effective practitioners.”