Hitting the right set

Kate McNally looks at the challenges facing the Pach system in its second year. Kate McNally is a freelance journalist. The second year of the controversial Pupillage Application Clearing House (Pach) is under way. It now remains to be seen whether the changes implemented ahead of this year's application process have ironed out some fairly serious wrinkles.

For many students, sweet dreams of a one-stop application shop soon gave way to dissatisfaction. Paragraphs were missing in the print-out of Pach's computerised application form; there was insufficient feedback from administrators, particularly for students no longer at bar school; and a few applications did not reach the chambers specified. But perhaps the most significant drawback for many students was the fact that they no longer had control over their applications.

Simon Keevey applied through Pach last year and was not impressed. “The names of all those unsuccessful in the first round went into the second round and the list was sent off to chambers who had vacancies. You couldn't even phone chambers – they would tell you that the Bar Council handled any queries.” Keevey believes that Pach is geared towards chambers and is of no benefit to students.

Monica Whyte also applied through the new clearing scheme last year. While she accepts that Pach is a good idea in theory, she feels that in practice it leaves students at a disadvantage. “I didn't like Pach because it was limiting being able to choose only 20 chambers,” she says. “It's asking people to specialise too early when all most people want at that stage is to get a foot in the door.”

Even some students who had successfully secured a pupillage were not happy with the system. One says: “Over 500 pupils who have spent a lot of money getting trained up were left feeling utterly frustrated because they felt they did not get a fair crack of the whip.”

Not all students are against Pach, however. There are those who believe it would be difficult for any system to manage effectively the applications nightmare. Now that there are more institutions offering places to hopeful Bar students, the situation is likely to worsen each year as more enter the Bar education system with no correlating increase in pupillages available.

But the success of Pach in the immediate future surely hinges on the fine-tuning of applicants' selections. Given that the aim of Pach is to make the annual application process more manageable, it inevitably means controlling the number of applications. But it was apparent during the first year of Pach, that controlling numbers was not enough in itself.

It had been expected that most chambers would receive between 70 and 100 applications through Pach, which for the majority would have meant a significant reduction. However, some chambers actually received more applications.

Doughty Street Chambers, for example, received in excess of 700 applications, 200 more than the previous year under the old 'free for all' system. The problems did not stop there, as Christine Kings, practice manager at Doughty Street Chambers, explains: “We offered out eight places but we made offers to the same eight students as everyone else. We got five of the people we wanted and had three vacancies. We continued going through all the people we had interviewed and filled one more place that way. We then had to go beyond those interviewed and back to Pach for further applications to fill the two remaining pupillages.”

The Bar Council's working party for Pach has tried to address the problem by further restricting the choice for applicants to only 12 chambers. This should help reduce the number of applications to individual chambers but it is questionable whether it will avoid a repetition of last year, when the majority of first round offers centred on about 20 per cent of applicants. The on-disk application form, which has been further simplified for 1997-98, means that students can no longer tailor their approach to individual chambers. So it is even more probable that many chambers will again select the same high achievers, causing the same bottleneck this year. To avoid this, Pach would need to regulate the choice of both applications and offers, as well as limit it. But restricting choice is one thing, directing it another.

Yet it is exactly these difficulties that need to be overcome if Pach is to succeed. The need for widespread second- and third-round applications in 1996-97 meant a repetition of the whole process for a number of chambers, undermining the raison d'etre of the new system. In spite of this, most chambers have opted to stay in Pach this year. Littleton Chambers was wavering but has decided to remain a member. David Douglas, chief executive, explains why: “We thought it sensible to see how it goes this year as efforts have been made to address the problems. But if we have major problems again, we would have to consider what to do.”

Other chambers are also adopting a wait and see policy but prefer to do so outside the Pach system. Joanna Poulter, practice director at London chambers 9 Gough Square, says: “We felt we would look and see for another year. If it proves to be cost-effective then we will consider joining.”

Stephen Kramer QC heads the working party which put forward the recommendations for Pach this year. He admits that it has been a balancing act but is confident of success. Kramer is particularly excited about the introduction of preference matching, a computerised system which matches the criteria of students and chambers. “Pach 1997-98 will be an improvement on 1996-97,” he says. “We will test the preference matching and if that works it will be a fairer and better system for 1998 and beyond.”

There is hope, then, for the future of Pach, but clearly many have yet to be convinced of its merits. The increasing number of students in the years to come will not help matters.

Whatever the pros and cons, the clearing house system survived a difficult first year and the Bar Council has worked hard on improvements to ensure it is given a second chance. Whether these changes are sufficient to ensure the system works effectively and fairly in its second year remains to be seen. But unless significant advances are made this time around, Pach may not be given a third chance.