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The figures show that there were just 572 pupils in 2004 compared with 711 in 2003. The 2003 figure was itself an 8 per cent decrease from 2002, when there were 766 pupils.
The proportion of ethnic minority pupils also dropped from 20 per cent in 2002 and 2003 to 16 per cent last year. The gender split remained static, with women accounting for 49 per cent of new entrants.
A possible cause of the drop is a change in funding that was implemented three years ago by the Bar Council. It requires sets to pay pupils a guaranteed 10,000 over the course of their 12-month pupillages.
A committee monitoring requests to waive the set fee reported this month that most applications came from small provincial or criminal sets.
James Hines, a pupil master at criminal and fraud chambers 3 Raymond Buildings, said applications for pupillage have risen steadily, but that his set continues to offer the same number of places. However, he said the increased standardisationofthe pupillage application system through online system OLPAS may also have caused sets to limit the places on offer.
He also highlighted the Bar Council's policy change, which limits the number of pupils a pupil master can supervise to one.
"Many provincial and, indeed, some London sets will certainly be seeking to limit their commitments in this direction until the future seems a little clearer," said Hines.
In total there are now 11,564 barristers in independent practice, of which 71 per cent are male. In addition, there are 2,800 employed barristers.