Open system, open doors

The Bar Council is currently in the process of implementing a wide-ranging agenda for self-reform designed to create a progressive and dynamically-structured profession fit for the 21st century.

That process has included proposals for a new complaints system to tackle poor professional standards and moves to broaden access to the Bar Vocational Course through a scheme to allow other institutions across the country to teach it.

But it is vital for the profession, its entrants and the public at large also to create a system of entry to the profession which is both fair and rational.

The present system is haphazard and cumbersome. It creates a paper mountain for chambers and an overwhelming burden on students to complete hundreds of applications in different forms and at different times.

It is for this reason that the Bar Council is currently implementing proposals for a pupillage applications clearing house, or PACH scheme, which would reflect the UCAS scheme offered to 400,000 university applicants each year.

The proposals were developed by a steering group led by Michael Beloff QC, established as one of the first acts of my 1995 Bar Council programme. We have consulted widely on the measures, which build on the too disparate range of joint working arrangements already in place at the Bar.

Our analysis of that experience, the work of UCAS and other proposals, led us to favour the setting up of a universal but voluntary clearing house scheme for pupillage applications, to run from 1996. Contractors have been appointed to run the scheme, the software is being developed. The intention is that chambers will sign up to the pilot scheme soon, with students joining in the summer. Applications will then be considered in October.

The scheme features a single application form on which prospective pupils specify a limited number of chambers to which they wished to apply. Candidates are also required to make clear their preferred sphere of the law to practise – for example, general criminal or specialist commercial.

A unified timetable for applications, interviews and offers of places is to apply, with the first round selection followed by a pool for candidates unsuccessful in the first round.

While interviewing and selection criteria will remain a matter for participating chambers – as is true of universities in the UCAS scheme – we feel the introduction of a single, standardised form will ease selection, make it more reliable and accord with good equal opportunities practice.

The scheme as a whole has also been developed to ensure truly open competition: the Bar prides itself on being a meritocracy, but it must put an end to any practice which provides fuel for an allegation that it is a closed club.

An open clearing house scheme, which enables chambers to compare a field of applicants at one time on an equal basis will put an end to haphazard selection procedures. It will encourage the practice and the perception of selection upon objective merit, upon which the future quality and strength of the Bar depend.

As well as easing the burden of the present system on chambers and applicants, our aim is that the PACH framework will enable chambers to compare candidates in a way which accords with the Bar Council's equality code for the Bar, recently adopted by the Bar Council unanimously.

PACH will have costs involved – at present, we anticipate that chambers might have to contribute an amount in the order of £100 to join the scheme, with applicants paying £10 to enter. But we are confident that the scheme itself will bring savings too; applicants will have to devote less time and expense in firing off multiple application forms to different sets of chambers.

Chambers, meanwhile, will receive a lesser number of better-focused applicants from more suitable candidates. They will also face a once-only interview and selection round, with the benefits of a pool system to fill up any remaining vacancies.

The success of PACH depends on chambers' willingness to participate. It is, rightly, a voluntary scheme. The implementation process is going well and the early indications are that chambers are enthusiastic about our proposal. I want to convert that goodwill into participation. The independent Bar will remain strong through attracting the best and most able candidates. We want to deliver the best possible system to provide an effective and fair route into the profession.