The admissions procedure of Northern Ireland's Institute of Professional Legal Studies has come under scrutiny from an independent audit team.

The team is examining the vocational course which allows students to qualify as lawyers in the province and which has come under fire recently from leading law firms.

The firms claim that promising students cannot take up offers of pupillage either because they are failing to get on to the institute course or because they cannot afford to pay the fees.

There are only 90 places on the course and 60 bursaries for fees and last year there were more than 400 applicants.

Belfast firm Johns Elliott found itself without a pupil this year because the student it chose after a rigorous selection procedure failed to get into the institute. Partner Vera Woods said: “We want to know why people who appear so good at interview and are academically strong fare so badly in the institute test. It seems to be happening too often to be a fluke.”

Dennis Boyd, a senior law lecturer at Queen's University law faculty, said a system in which students could not take up places because they could not afford the fees could lead to some being admitted to the institute simply because they had the money rather than because they were the most promising lawyers. “This can't be good for the Law Society or the Bar,” he added.

Anne Fenton, associate director of the institute, said: “We are aware of the difficulties for firms picking pupils. With limited places there are going to be good pupils who don't get on the course.”

She added that interviewing students was impractical and would lead to charges of bias in such a small jurisdiction.

“Our system is squeaky clean,” she said.

The independent team audits the institute once every three years. A member of the team said admissions was one of several areas to be looked at and was not under scrutiny because of perceived criticism.