Advocates of a better Bar

If you thought the only students who left college and went on to become barristers are those with a rich father and who live a stone's throw away from Lincoln's Inn, you're in for a surprise.

Major changes are taking place in the way education and training for practice at the Bar of England and Wales are organised and delivered and the emphasis is on ensuring fairness and promoting equality of opportunity.

From the beginning of this year, the Bar Council took over direct responsibility for regulating the education and training of those who wish to become barristers. Through its new Education and Training Department, it will oversee all stages of training, from the recognition of law degrees through to the continuing professional development of those in practice.

The first stage of training for the Bar is satisfied by successfully completing a "qualifying" law degree. The Bar and the Law Society have recently modified the requirements for recognition of law degrees.

The most important change is that, from 1997, students will be required to have studied aspects of European Union law as well as the foundations of English law. Law schools will also be expected to place much more emphasis upon the development of legal research skills.

Graduate conversion courses, for those people with degrees in a subject other than law, will also be changed in line with law degrees. These are offered at a number of institutions and are known as either a CPE course or a diploma in law. Information on the completion of the academic stage can be obtained from the Bar Council.

At present the vocational stage of training is satisfied by undertaking the Bar Vocational Course (BVC) at the Inns of Court School of Law in London. A person who does not intend to practise at the Bar of England and Wales may become a barrister by taking the Bar Examination and courses for this are available at a number of institutions.

From August 1997, this will change in a number of ways.

First, the BVC will be offered by a number of universities and other institutions, as well as the Inns of Court School of Law. The process of validating these new courses is currently in progress and the list of the new providers is expected to be announced in early July.

The new courses should be available in most major legal centres outside London, important for potential students put off a career at the Bar because of the current necessity of having to take the BVC in London.

The possibility of studying the BVC part-time in the near future is also being discussed. This, too, could help potential students, such as those with a lower income.

The second change is that the Bar examination, criticised for a number of years, will no longer be offered and all students will be required to do the BVC. It is planned that the last date for registering with the Bar Council to take the Bar examination will be July 1997. There will be transitional arrangements put in place for those who are already registered.

In addition to completing the BVC or Bar examination, students must keep terms at their Inn before being called to the Bar.

This requires students to attend a number of dinners, at present 18, at their Inn. In addition to meeting with practicing barristers and judges, dining is often linked to a formal educational activity for the students.

When the BVC becomes available outside London, the present requirement that a student be admitted to an Inn before registering for the BVC is expected to end and the number of dinners reduced to 12.

However, the Bar remains committed to the Inns, which are recognised as offering a great deal to prospective barristers in their early years of training.

At present, people may be called "barristers" as soon as they are called to the Bar, but they cannot exercise rights of audience, such as appear as an advocate in the courts, until they have completed six months as a pupil in chambers.

This first period is known as the non-practicing six months and, on its completion, a pupil is issued with a provisional practising certificate which allows the pupil to accept instructions and conduct cases. This provisional practising certificate becomes a final certificate after the completion of a further six months pupillage.

This period of non-practice is currently the subject of considerable debate and proposals under consideration will defer call to the Bar until the completion of the first six months as a pupil.

This would mean only people with rights of audience could call themselves barristers. If this is approved, it will affect students who enroll for the 1997 vocational course.

There are approximately 700 pupillages available in each year. To assist students seeking pupillage, the Bar Council has set up a Pupillage Applications Clearing House (PACH) which come into effect in April and received a warm welcome.

PACH is intended to assist applicants for pupillage by reducing the number of applications they have to make to chambers and seeking to ensure that chambers adhere to a common timetable for selection.

The new scheme should enable students to select the chambers best suited to their interests and abilities. It should also increase fairness in pupillage offers by helping to cut through the increasingly competitive and frantic scramble for places.

Although membership of PACH is not compulsory, over two thirds of chambers are in the scheme.

Because of the importance of pupillage, the Bar is actively seeking ways to enhance its quality and to ensure that all pupillages are as good as the best, while not discouraging barristers from taking on pupils.

There have also been considerable developments over the training of pupils, especially in advocacy training given by the Inns of Court Advocacy Training Committee. It is planned to build upon this and ensure rigorous systems of advocacy training permeate the whole of the training for the Bar.

On completion of 12 months in pupillage, a barrister who wishes to enter independent practice must find a tenancy in a set of barristers chambers. Again, competition can make this difficult.

For those who are successful or who seek to practise at the employed Bar, from 1997 there will be a requirement to undertake recognised continuing education activities. Initially this compulsory scheme will only cover the first three years in practice, but it is expected to be extended. However, it must be stressed that through the work of the specialist Bar associations, the Inns and the regional circuits, there is already much voluntary activity to ensure all practising barristers are assisted in keeping up-to-date with changes in the law.

These changes in training for the Bar are intended to enhance quality at every level and much attention is being paid to ensuring fairness and promoting equality of opportunity for all.

This reshaping of education and training by the Bar Council should go some way to ensuring that the Bar is not perceived as being a career that is only available to those with the connections and resources.