The Director General of the Bar Standards Board (BSB) has promised a “lessons learned review” of how the online Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) exams were managed this August.

Over the course of the last week a host of students have complained about serious problems with the exams, including technical issues with the online delivery system which meant they could not access or complete the tests, along with restrictions that did not allow students could not leave their screens for hours, leading to some urinating in bottles in front of their invigilator, as well as demands that some students remove their headscarf or turban to identify themselves.

As anger mounted the BSB released a statement last Friday, saying that students had been warned in advance that they should use the toilet before starting the test, and that “89 per cent of the exams were delivered without any reported incident and 97 per cent of exams were successfully completed.”

However, this statement only provoked more anger, both from students and members of the barristers’ profession.

The problems with the exams do not appear to have been resolved as complaints have continued to flood social media over Monday and Tuesday this week. The BSB’s Director General, Mark Neale, has now made a further statement acknowledging the “strength of feeling” from those affected and committing to “enabling as many students as possible to take their exams as soon as we can.”

Neale had previously spoken to the blog Legal Futures on Monday in which he rejected calls for resignations at the BSB.

In the new statement, published late on the evening of Tuesday 18 August, he states: “I know that for those who have faced difficulties it is no help at all to be told that all the statistics we have received from our partner, Pearson VUE, suggest that, even on Monday when there were delays with their OnVUE system, many students were able to complete their exams. I am pleased that they were able to do so but I very much regret the difficulties some students have had. We are now doing our utmost to ensure that they too will be able to complete their exams as soon as possible.”

He adds: “But we knew that all online examinations involve an element of risk and also, as our earlier statement made clear, that there are many things which can go wrong which are neither the supplier’s fault nor that of the student, and even where systems checks have been done in advance.”

“I can also assure you that we shall be commissioning a lessons learned review of the handling of the August examinations. This review will report to BSB’s Governance, Risk and Audit Committee, which is composed of independent non-executive directors, and will be undertaken independently of the BSB.”

The BSB’s handling of the BPTC exams have been a running saga throughout lockdown. The regulator only took the exams online in the first place after pressure from students worried about negative knock-on consequences of repeated postponements for the likes of international students who had not planned on being in the country for so long, as well as those set to start pupillages in September and October this year.

Some students are now calling for the exams to be waived entirely, with an online petition set up on Tuesday night to advocate for this scenario.

The BPTC exams fiasco: a timeline

17 March 2020: The BSB postpones April’s BPTC exams due to the coronavirus pandemic.

19 March 2020: Students lobby the BSB not to postpone the exams, claiming the planned delay is “an indeterminate one, kicking the can down the road rather than developing a substantive solution.” The students urge the BSB to amend the format of the exams instead, suggesting that they could be assessed via a virtual test, using programmes such as Examplify.

13 May 2020: The BSB maintains the exams will be held in August, but says they will be done online instead, meaning that there will be no risk of further postponements.

2 July 2020: Students with disabilities set to take the exams express their dismay after providers emailed them at short notice, leaving only 24 hours for them to decide whether to agree to take the exams in a testing centre, with no guarantee their special requirements would be catered for.

12 August 2020: Technical problems blight the first online exam. Meanwhile other students complained of having to urinate in bottles because the delivery system would not allow them to leave their desks.

14 August 2020: The BSB releases a statement saying that while it is sorry for any issues students experiences, technical glitches are “inevitable” with any online testing platform. It adds: “The BPTC exams are an essential professional qualification for students seeking to enter a profession that requires the utmost integrity… the integrity of the exam is therefore extremely important… students have been reminded to read the guide on our website, which… recommends that students “prepare yourself for not being able to leave the room for the duration of your exam, for example by going to the toilet as close to the start of the exam as possible”. Online backlash against this statement is significant.

17-18 August 2020: Problems continue to crop up in further exams. BSB Director General promises students who need to resit will be able to do so before the end of the year.