Mansfield QC: there should be no limit on BPTC places

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  • In order to enter the Bar, we have all had to complete rigorous academic training, and quite rightly so. However, this training does not come cheap, and to charge a fee at the level proposed for this event flies in the face of the very creditable recent progress made by the Bar in widening access and ensuring that a career as a barrister is open to all.

    In my view the Bar is a meritocratic profession at heart. However, we at the Bar cannot escape the fact that the profession is seen in some quarters as not being sufficiently representative, and this criticism has been used as a stick at which to beat the Bar for some time. We at the Bar do ourselves no favours in this regard by attempting to charge £175 to students in an attempt to cash in on their sheer desperation to gain pupillage. As the number of pupillages dwindle, this kind of profiteering could very easily be seen as exploiting a vulnerable market.

    Most of us have either completed an LLB or a degree in a different field - for arguments sake, let's assume we have incurred approximately £10-18,000 in completing our undergraduate degree. Those like me – who haven't opted for a LLB – go on to do a GDL which can cost within the region of £6-10,000. Some of us then contemplate acquiring an LLM, to 'distinguish' ourselves from our contemporaries; this costs £3-12,000. After spending £19-40,000, we then face the penultimate academic stage - The Bar Professional Training Course which costs a whopping £8-16,500.

    That gives us a grand total of £27-56,500 – and bear in mind that this doesn't include the cost of living, accommodation, books etc. To reach this stage we have either accumulated a string of debts, worked ourselves to the bone, and/or have had parents who have sacrificed their life savings, remortgaged their home, and worked two jobs or overtime.

    We then confront the dreaded and most daunting hurdle – seeking pupillage. We are repeatedly advised – now that we are equipped with the academic training – that we must obtain practical experience. This can consist anything from voluntary work at charities, NGOs, CABs, advice surgeries, and international stints to working as paralegal, advocate and so forth. Now, let’s all be honest, the money is not great. But for me and many more like me, we are not in this profession for the money; job satisfaction is the key and only motivation. Indeed, taking into account the legal aid cuts that are due to take place next month, the Bar is faced with a bleak and uncertain future for all.

    My point is, I'm not saying it is impossible – nothing is impossible – but it certainly makes it difficult, to say the very least, to even reach this stage. I understand and agree that we are striving to enter a profession which requires hard work, determination, resilience, integrity, intellectual rigour and dedication; but the increasing financial constraints only serve to provide ammunition for those who would say that membership of the Bar is a privilege open only to the more affluent members of society today.

    Now more importantly, as aspiring barristers, we look up to senior barristers to encourage and support us as to the realities and possible avenues of entering the Bar. We do not expect to pay an 'exorbitant' amount, namely £175, for an opportunity that should be if not free, then accessible to all. I would like to emphasise at this point, this is in no way whatsoever, a criticism on part of the many keynote speakers such as Michael Mansfield QC, Jo Sidhu QC and Andrew Hall QC who sacrificed their Saturday to provide free advice and support to individuals such as me. Indeed I am certain that if we all had the privilege of meeting such individuals, they would have been more than willing to provide such advice in the absence of any event. Neither is this a reflection upon the ethos of leading chambers such as Tooks and institutions such as the Criminal Bar Association. If anything it is the contrary, organisations, chambers and individuals such as those inspire barristers such as myself who are seeking pupillage, that there is a glimmer of hope – that the notion that the Bar is open to all is still prevalent today.

    However, £175, really? Honestly, that is a 1/4 of my monthly salary, as for many more individuals ... Now I understand and agree that events of this nature can have a quasi-commercial character to them, they incur costs that need to be met, and where people give up their time free of charge to talk at them, that is a matter of their generosity and not something that should necessarily be taken for granted.

    Nevertheless, how is £175 in any way justifiable as a reasonable cost for a ticket/ event providing advice on how to obtain pupillage? Let’s play devil’s advocate here and break this down logically: how much would holding an event like this actually cost? The likely estimation of costs would entail venue hire on a hourly rate of £60-100; light snacks and refreshments at £200 - 500; catering at £100-250; advertising at £100 - 250; and miscellaneous costs of £100- 250. Of course, keynote speakers spoke free, so that was one cost that did not need to be factored in. Now if I am missing something, by all means I am open and amenable to this, however surely this couldn't have cost more than £980 - 2050? To charge students £10-25 or even £30 is reasonable and justifiable: we all recognise that events such as these do require money and generate costs, but £175? Should one ponder, has a blatant bottom line approach been taken?

    Now let’s go on to deliberate an approximate estimation of how many pupils, who indeed had the initial funds requested, to attend what was an "invaluable opportunity and event" as exclaimed by a fellow friend. We all know it’s that time of year again, and we are all anxiously preparing our applications for pupillage. So let’s estimate that 150- 200 individuals attended, that would generate £26,250 - 35,000 in return. That in turn yields a staggering estimated profit of £24,200 - 32,950. Wow - was a scholarship "originally" advertised as a surprise award to holders of the golden tickets?

    Yes the cost of this event was "originally" £175, then reduced to £80, to a further £42.50 and eventually made free of charge, with a full refund to all who were vulnerable enough to pay. But this event could have easily been sponsored and supported by all - this is indicated by City Law Solicitors, Tooks and various keynote speakers involvement. Indeed, I have also collaborated in holding such an event in the past, and was pleasantly surprised at the amount of institutions, barristers, solicitors and Inns of Court who were willing to freely commit and support such event without any persuasion. So why was this event "originally", and one places emphasis on "originally", advertised for £175 when all these opportunities were readily available, or perhaps even confirmed from the very outset? Hmmmm.

    Lastly, although it is conceded that this event was advertised as being priced at £42.50, and then eventually free, individuals such as myself were prevented from the opportunity of such an invaluable experience. Why? Because we did not have the initial funds to attend and/or by the time that we were aware that it was free, it was sadly too late. As previously stated, taking into account financial constraints, do we now need to spend £175 for advice on how to obtain pupillage? What must we do next, sell our kidneys to be afforded such opportunities?

    One musters the courage to question the unanswerable, the following three-fold questions:

    1. IF the benefit of a scholarship was "originally" advertised as part of this event, justifying the original sum of £175 then why wasn't and hasn't this "originally" been promoted by keynote speakers, organisations and students?

    2. If sponsorship was secured at the very outset of this event then why were tickets still priced at £175?

    3. Why weren't obvious sponsors who indeed committed to such an event approached from the very outset?

    Being an individual who possesses an indomitable amount of passion and determination, I would like to conclude on this note: notwithstanding all the pressures and financial constraints, I and, I am sure, others like me, will not be dissuaded from pursuing a career at the Bar, and will continue to fearlessly fight for the honour, to proudly someday, call ourselves barristers.

    By

    An aspiring Barrister


    Disclaimer: It is vehemently submitted that this commentary does not intend to discredit or disparage keynote speakers, institutions, chambers, organisations and others.

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  • The problem is that the process doesn't just "disappoint" them, it can financially ruin them.

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  • I am currently a Bar school student and really struggle to understand Mr. Mansfield's point of view here. Like the person in the first comment has stated, getting as far as the BPTC is, in itself, a huge financial commitment.

    I did an LLB but still had to take out a student loan which totals £21,000. The cheapest BPTC course this year is £11,800 + living costs which is an enormous sum of money. I am in the very fortunate position of being supported financially by my Inn (which is one of the ways in which access to the Bar is significantly widened to those who would otherwise be unable to afford to go through this process) so will complete the Bar course debt free. However, my year at Bar School is rife with people with 2:2s and poor academic/work experience histories (including many who have never done a mini-pupillage or even been to Court) who really should have been advised at some point along the way that the BPTC wasn't right for them.

    I am now faced with the daunting prospect of filling in pupillage application forms, knowing that the Chambers who receive them will be faced with a deluge of applications from good candidates, and will be forced to somehow choose 25 or less to call for interview (potentially from 400 applicants). The fact is that many of the people who do the BPTC may never even get in to the interview room, never mind get pupillage.

    I understand that the article suggests that more pupillages should be available each year. This is all well and good but the Bar is facing unprecedented difficulties and an increase in the number of people who are taken on each year is not going to help matters (particularly when pupils are paid by Chambers). The fact is that Chambers who are already struggling are not going to take 5 or 6 pupils per year and, even if they did, the competition for tenancy would simply increase.

    The people who have no chance of getting pupillage need to be told that this is the case from the outset because the alternative is grim. Offering places on the BPTC to any old Tom, Dick or Harry who applies does not increase the competition for pupillage. It simply replaces the disappointment at not getting a place on the course with disappointment and debt 12 months later when the candidate completes the course and is unable to find pupillage.

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