Compulsory Bar levy is only solution for trainee funding crisis

Martin Bowley QC says the Bar will return to its bad old days as a bastion of white, middle class, Oxbridge privilege unless it takes radical steps.

At the Bar conference this month I asked a panel which included the Lord Chief Justice and Solicitor General the following:

"I frequently meet Bar students with debts in excess of £25,000 even before they have a pupillage – and this will only get worse as contributions towards undergraduate tuition fees begin to bite. Unless the Bar does something radical and quickly the profession will rapidly regain its white, Oxbridge, middle class profile which it has done much to get rid of in the past 30 years. What must the Bar do to resolve this crisis?"

It was the only question which aroused real debate from the floor. The panel – with the distinguished exception of Helena Kennedy QC – did not rise to the occasion. In her response, Bar chairman Heather Hallett QC, referred approvingly to the report of the Bar Council working party on financing entry to the Bar. That report was nearly two years in gestation. When it at last arrived before the council at the September meeting it was merely "noted". And even if it was implemented at once it would have no impact before Autumn 2000.

The report is carefully drafted and well researched. It shows that currently there is a shortfall of nearly £18m between sums required by Bar students to get through training and pupillage, and money available from the Bar and Inns. Sadly the report's drafting and research is not matched by its conclusions and recommendations.

To suggest that the Government is likely to approve four year degree courses for law students is political pie in the sky in today's economic climate. To talk about funded training for those who work in the Community Legal Service is equally unreal since it does not yet exist.

Ultimately the report does no more than recommend that the Bar Council should try to persuade chambers to provide 500 funded pupillages at a minimum of £10,000 a year. It offers no ideas on how and when this should be achieved.

But nearly 9 years ago the council set a target of 450 funded pupillages at £6,000 a year, and even now that target has not been met. Clearly persuasion is no solution. At the conference, one senior Bar Council member made it very clear to me that he would not contribute to financing other chambers' pupils unless it was compulsory.

The report rejects the idea of a compulsory training levy in less than half a page. It is argued that this may be restraint on trade. But a 1 per cent levy on the Bar's gross fee income would, at a stroke, double the sums available for pupillage awards. It would provide awards of at least £12m for 750 pupils. And Gordon Brown would fund 40 per cent.

I see from the Bar Council's response to the Lord Chancellor's consultation paper on audience rights that the council wants statutory powers to enforce staged rights of audience, continuing professional education, compulsory subscriptions and compulsory indemnity insurance.

Unless current Bar leaders are prepared to take the politically unpopular decision to add a compulsory training levy to that list, we have no realistic prospect of ever solving this funding crisis.