Cash crisis and poor prospects for young Bar

Shaun Pye looks at the Bar Council report on overburdened student finance, and finds a profession unwilling to put its hands in its pockets to help.

Let us start with the blindingly obvious. It costs a massive amount of money to train as a barrister.

In a worst-case scenario, a non-law degree student will leave university heavily in debt, pay about #3,000 for the common professional examination (CPE), another #7,000 for the Bar vocational course (BVC), all the time paying their own living expenses.

If lucky, the student will be one of the 50 per cent to get a year-long pupillage. If very lucky, they will be one of the 30 per cent to then find a tenancy and thus begin competing in the saturated market of the junior Bar and against a soon-to-rapidly-expand brigade of solicitor-advocates.

The financial assistance for students facing this uncertain world is dwindling. State handouts are now virtually non-existent, with parental support providing the majority of funds for the BVC. Total debts of #25,000 are not uncommon for students who do not even make it into independent practice.

One could ask the question: who cares? Students seem untroubled, with the number of applicants for the BVC in 1998 up for the fourth successive year to nearly 2,700.

But the bubble must surely burst. Top solicitors firms offer final-year degree students funding during training, guaranteed contracts and the innate security offered by "the other branch" of the profession.

It means that in the near future, applicants for the BVC will have to be either supremely confident or super rich.

The Bar's egalitarian image, which has been painstakingly improved over recent years – one out of 10 barristers is from an ethnic minority and a quarter are women – will be seriously under threat.

Unsurprisingly, the Bar Council decided over a year ago that something had to be done, and set up the working party on financing entry to the Bar under former Bar Council chairman Peter Goldsmith QC. His report has been presented to the council and will be debated in November.

Goldsmith makes two key recommendations. The first is that pupillage recruitment should be brought forward to a date before students commit themselves to the BVC. This would give security to the student. It would also encourage chambers to pay students during their BVC year. Goldsmith estimates between 50 and 100 students would benefit.

Whether chambers want to select pupils at such an early stage remains to be seen. Some already do, while others would, no doubt, conclude that if it works for the big City firms, it can work for them.

Goldsmith concedes there is "a real concern" that the revised timetable could increase discrimination against those "from less traditional backgrounds".

Martin Bowley QC, an arch-critic of the report, says: "It would play into the hands of Oxbridge, where one's tutors would undoubtedly have better contacts than a contemporary at, say, Merthyr Tydfil. Once you get to Bar school there is a more level playing field."

A second, and more controversial, proposal is to increase the amount of funding for BVC students from the profession. It is considered unfeasible to give assistance to all BVC students, but Goldsmith says help should be given to 500 each year – the same number as will end up in practice – who would be selected on a combination of merit and need.

It costs just over #6m to train 500 students. The profession already pays #2m. Goldsmith wants to find an additional #2m from the four Inns of Court by introducing annual subscriptions for members of about #100.

On paper, it seems justifiable. The Inns are, after all, "the cheapest club in London". Members pay initial fees of #165 to join but then nothing for the rest of their lives. But members are unlikely to back the plan. Most barristers already contribute substantial sums to the Inns through rent on chambers. David Hills, under treasurer at Lincoln's Inn, says: "This is a personal view but the Bar Council can't even get barristers to pay their subscriptions, let alone this proposed extra money. This could also frighten people away from the Inn."

The Inns back the idea of launching a "millennium appeal" specifically to raise money for education. David Machin, under-treasurer at Gray's Inn, is confident they can raise "a considerable sum of money". Goldsmith, however, is not convinced and says any appeal would need to produce a capital fund of about #10m to be effective – an "unrealistic" proposition.

If his main proposal is rejected, Goldsmith suggests as a fallback that the Bar Council and the Government set up an interest-free, long-term loan scheme. But he also lists a host of problems with such a plan. It would still leave students with massive debt and, theoretically, would cast the Bar Council as debt collector for those students who do not make it.

So will Goldsmith's report make any difference?

Cynics would point out that this is not the first time the Bar Council has decided that "something has to be done" about the problem. Four initiatives were undertaken between 1989 and 1992 and achieved only limited success.

For example, Goldsmith argues that the number of funded pupillages should be set at 500 with a guaranteed minimum income of #10,000. But Martin Bowley points out that the 1989 Phillips committee recommendation of 450 places with a #6,000 minimum is still to be met.

The main criticism of the report is that, while the diagnosis is first-class, the proposed solutions lack any teeth. Bowley says Goldsmith wants to cajole the profession along but "barristers won't do anything unless they are compelled to".

Goldsmith says such sentiments are "not fair". "We canvassed a wide variety of views and have produced imaginative schemes – for example, our partnership with government to create the loan scheme. It may not be ideal but it's better than the current situation."

He says, ultimately, it is a question of individual barristers getting their heads out of the sand. "There's no lottery money coming to save us. We need to invest in the future."

See student feature, pages 19-34.