Much has been written about the problems faced by young people in becoming barristers. Some barristers have responded to these concerns by saying that it was never meant to be easy to become a practising barrister, because only those with the greatest talent are required. There is truth in both sides of the argument.
No one seriously challenges the fact that the bar is perceived as elitist, in the sense of exclusive. This is a damaging perception, because it breeds hostility towards a profession that exists predominantly to serve the public interest.
The single most important thing is that there must truly be a level playing field, so that the most able from all racial and social backgrounds have equal access to the profession. To achieve this we must break down the barriers to entry. But it is necessary first to identify them.
The intelligent child of a less privileged family is less likely to be exposed to a professional environment in the same way as their more fortunate peers at private schools or with professional parents. The bar is simply not discussed as a career option in families from lower socio-economic groups. Of course, all young people know what barristers are from popular TV series. But they do not make the association between that knowledge and the active possibility of becoming a barrister.
Even the cleverest comprehensive school students are often advised badly about their choice of university course. If an underprivileged child chooses to do, say, media studies, and then realises in their third year at college that law would have been a better option, it is often too late to change, because the changeover course costs another unaffordable £25,000 or so.
School students from less privileged homes can have less well-developed presentational skills than those from private schools. These skills can be developed rapidly, but at the time they are applying for funding for their BVC, these students may appear to be less likely to develop into the most attractive public speakers.
Money is the greatest barrier to entry. The BVC course costs £25,000, and finance is not easily available to all. The Inns provide some £4m per annum in scholarships, which is a fantastic contribution, and the banks make loans available to some. But the difficulty of ascertaining how such finance can be obtained forms a supplemental barrier to students from poorer families.
Two solutions to these problems are uncontroversial. First, we need to find ways to make sure that intelligent young people from less privileged backgrounds are aware of the possibility of coming to the bar by having the opportunity to see the profession first-hand while there is still time for them to choose to study law at university. A combination of the bar’s existing schools initiatives and collaboration with outside organisations, such as the Social Mobility Foundation and the Sutton Trust, may go a long way towards providing the necessary opportunities.
Second, we need to find ways to supplement the very significant contributions that the Inns already make towards financing entry to the profession. The only way to achieve this will be to consider a loan scheme so as to smooth the path of those who cannot afford the BVC year. Of course, we also need to consider BVC numbers, deferral of call and other crucially interrelated issues.
But if we find a way of making funding available to all talented applicants from all backgrounds, we will have made a crucial beginning.