THE COUNCIL of Legal Education has come under fire from a group of former students who claim CLE solicitors have threatened them with high cost orders in an effort to avoid appeals against the council's assessment system.
The CLE could face actions from up to 40 students who have notified the Visitors to the Inns of Court of their intention to petition for passes or resits on their Bar Vocational Course examinations.
Barrister Richard Cole, who was expected to raise the matter at last week's Bar Council annual general meeting, says more than 60 students initially notified the visitors, including one who says she has been threatened with a costs order of between £50,000 to £100,000. However, some have since withdrawn their actions.
But CLE secretary John Taylor, who defends the course as "innovative and evolving", says although he knows of individual cases he is unaware of a "group action".
He says although the CLE has obtained orders for costs in past cases, no steps have been taken to enforce the orders. But he admits the CLE does warn students about the potential costs of unsuccessful actions.
Cole, who is acting for one of the students, says they simply want their grievances investigated and do not want to become involved in a "highly legalistic" process.
But he says the students, who cannot claim legal aid to appear before the visitors, are now threatened with high costs orders to discourage appeals and he is calling on the Bar to reassess the system of awarding costs.
"No assessment process can ever be completely fair," says Cole. "There will always be students just on the wrong side of the pass mark who feel they have been harshly treated. The remedy on other academic courses for such students is to allow them to resit.
"It seems inappropriate to use the threat of costs to discourage appeals if there are legitimate grievances which warrant investigation."
Mature student Cecilia Hulse, who first sat the finals in 1992, is set to appear before the visitors from 26 to 30 June. She will claim that under current CLE rules she would have passed her course.
Hulse and other students say the CLE has revised its assessment regulations each year since the advent of the course, and many of those who failed in the past would, under current regulations, now pass.
"These amendments, which vary from minor to fundamental, have in many cases been brought about by complaints by affected students, criticism of procedures by the Barrow Committee of Inquiry - itself set up by the CLE in response to student criticism - and petitions to the visitor," says Hulse.
"The Inns of Court School of Law, though willing to remedy the flaws in its procedures, has not always been prepared to extend to students retrospectively the benefit of the changes."