Earlier this year, Bar chairman Peter Goldsmith visited the Department of Education to express concern about the worsening funding situation facing trainee barristers. With less than six per cent of students getting their full fees paid by local education authorities and only 17 per cent getting some form of assistance (compared with 47 per cent getting full fees paid and 67 per cent getting some form of assistance in 1990), the financial burdens are forcing increasing numbers to defer pupillage.
The current crisis is not helped by the rising cost of the Bar Vocational Course which will jump from £3,900 this year to £5,200 next year.
At the meeting with Parliamentary under-secretary Tim Boswell in February, which was also attended by Law Society president Charles Elly, both sides of the legal profession asked for more flexible loan and repayment schemes for the professional courses.
“He listened to what we were saying but it would be wrong to say any promises were given,” says Bar education spokesperson Mark Stubbs. They all concede that the prospect of the Government giving more money to local authorities to fund legal education is not on the cards, and he adds: “It is difficult to believe that the Government will move on it.”
However, the Bar Council is determined to keep the pressure up and is providing further evidence of the hardship facing trainee barristers.
“Last year, 30 per cent of those seeking deferred entry to pupillage said the main reason was financial,” says Stubbs. “A substantial number of students are in arrears with their fees at the end of the course and welfare officers are coming across numbers of students with serious financial problems.”
The current career development loan is not suitable for trainee barristers, the Bar Council maintains. This is because students have to start repayments three months after the course finishes and students have to pay commercial interest rates from then on. However, trainee barristers are not earning at this stage. Those doing the CPE course are “far worse off,” says Stubbs. They have to find two years' fees, as well as supporting themselves.
The Inns of Court provide limited funding for all three years of professional studies and training but there is great competition for such funding.
This year, Lincoln's Inn had 180 applications for funding for the Bar Vocational Course, compared with last year's 250 applications.
Student officer Judith Fox puts the decrease down to less applications for the Bar Vocational Course. There were 1,400 this year, compared with 2,500 last year. The lucky applicants are chosen on merit first. Need is second, she says, adding that most applicants need funding.
Lincoln's Inn allocates 20 grants for the CPE course, 10 for the Bar Vocational Course and 20 bursaries.
This year, scholarship awards have risen from £7,000 to £9,000 while bursaries have gone up from £5,000 to £6,000.
For the second year running, the Inn has introduced accommodation awards which have proved a hit with students. “It has proved very popular,” Fox says, adding that most people who are applying for an award apply for an accommodation award as well. This is worth around £3,000 and is only offered for the vocational year as CPE students can undertake their courses anywhere around the country while those doing the vocational course must do it in London.
Lincoln's Inn also offers a hardship grant, not more than £1,000, for those trainees facing a financial crisis which may prevent them from taking their exams.
Inner Temple also offers assistance to a select few with five scholarships of £10,000 and 20 of £8,500 as well as a fund of £144,000 which is split into smaller awards.
A variety of charity trusts exist which provide some form of funding. However, although the Bar is determined to keep up pressure on the Government, there is little sign that funding will improve.
The Bar has had talks with the Midland Bank in the hope of arriving at better arrangements for those doing Bar courses and plans to talk to the other high street banks.
But in the meanwhile, student officers are still hearing horror stories of those in debt to the tune of many thousands by the time they reach pupillage.
Mary Heaney is a freelance journalist.