The Bar Professional Training Course: overpriced and redundant

The Bar Professional Training Course is not fit for today’s requirements, argues pupil barrister Greg Callus.

In a stunning economic coincidence, London’s three largest law schools have all independently chosen to price next year’s Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) at a clean round figure of £17,350.

Barristers-to-be will also be stung by the introduction of the Bar Course Aptitude Test (BCAT): a verbal reasoning exam which will cost each candidate £150 – more than the £67 initially suggested. The BCAT is ostensibly designed to protect the true no-hopers from cost and heartache, any six-figure windfall profits being an unexpected boon. All this at a time when an LLB costs £9,000 a year too.

But for all the obvious inhibitions to social diversity that might stem from price inflation, the real problem with the BPTC isn’t necessarily just its cost, but its sheer pointlessness.

Forty years ago, plenty of barristers had a truly mixed practice – civil work as the daily bread, with an occasional dabble in criminal trials. Few stalwarts of this model remain to see its viability sorely tested by the imposition of the Quality Assurance Scheme for Advocates (QASA). Yet while the bar is becoming an ever-more specialised profession, and few pupillages straddle the civil-criminal divide, the BPTC curriculum still splits fairly evenly between criminal and civil litigation. This alone represents a monumental waste of time, money and effort.

A growing proportion of pupils (32.4 per cent, up from 20 per cent in the previous year) are securing their pupillages before even starting the BPTC, making the abject redundancy of half the course (presumably valued at £8,675, or the cost of a master’s degree) yet more poignant.

Lest students be tempted to skip the irrelevant parts in favour of useful practical experience, the BPTC infantilises postgraduates by mandating 100 per cent attendance. Attendance of less than 90 per cent is inexcusable, guaranteeing failure even if that student should ace every single exam.

It’s not even as though the BPTC teaches transferable skills, a point made painfully clear by no longer exempting its graduates even from the similar exams required to qualify as a solicitor. Just as students aiming to practise in England and Wales suffer a course that is too general, those from jurisdictions ranging from Bermuda to Bangladesh pay through the nose for a course that is too specific: most intend to return home, where an intimate familiarity with the White Book is unlikely to be useful. And all the while, the scholarship funds of the Inns of Court, a £4.2m pot which is mostly expended on helping students pay for tuition, is stretched thinner than its mission to improve access to the bar deserves.

The UK average starting salary for graduates is now £22,800, or around £18,000 after tax. It is difficult to see how any non-specialist course – often only tangentially related to the work undertaken in pupillage – could justify nearly a year’s net salary. Given that the minimum pupillage award is a mere £12,000 (scarcely minimum wage), one wonders if surely it wouldn’t be better for pupils to spend their BPTC fees on living costs and extend pupillage by a year.

Except the BPTC doesn’t need to be a full year. Some top law firms already expect their trainees to dispose of the LPC in six months, and there’s no reason that advocacy, drafting and procedure couldn’t be taught in as condensed a period. Indeed, 15 BPTC students (a large class) on current rates will spend over £250,000 in fees – enough to get 20 weeks’ of full-time tuition from barristers on a day rate of £2,500.

I think the answer is to abolish the BPTC. I would suggest replacing it with 20 weeks of specialism-specific (ie criminal, commercial, family etc) training in drafting, advice and advocacy, for pupils only. Such training would take place throughout the non-practising first 12 months of an extended 18-month pupillage. The training could be paid for by consortia of chambers in lieu of the current £12,000 minimum pupillage award.

This would not financially prejudice pupils, who would instead be able to live on the money saved by not doing the BPTC (plus scholarships and whatever is offered by their chambers above the minimum). Even for students funded through their training entirely by loans, the need to borrow would only arise after pupillage had been secured, hopefully improving socio-economic diversity by ending the financial risk barrier of up-front BPTC costs.

The existing BPTC providers should be allowed to bid for the business of running the specialist training courses. As such courses would be paid for by consortia of chambers, not by consumer-students, this would avoid the competition law concerns that apparently led to the abolition of a single bar course provider in favour of many, and more expensive, providers. By all means retain a generic, non-mandatory course of some use to those who have no intention of practising in England and Wales.

The cost of becoming a barrister is now exorbitant. Rather than just bemoan its expense, maybe we should see this as the perfect opportunity to consign the generic BPTC to history, and imagine a more-specialised and more-economical replacement.

Greg Callus is a pupil barrister. He tweets at @Greg_Callus