The Bar Council’s Pupillage Gateway platform suffered severe IT problems during the application process this year that led to applicants’ personal details being revealed to chambers, The Lawyer has learned.

Barristers chambers claim that IT issues meant they were only able to download applications that displayed all of the applicant’s personal details, such as name, date of birth, gender and education, despite a rule that requires sets to do the first application sift blind to avoid unconscious bias during the application process.

The Pupillage Gateway works as a centralised site that enables chambers to post pupillage vacancies and prospective pupils to submit their applications. On a specific date (in this case, 14 February 2023), the sets can download candidate applications and begin the shortlisting and interview process.

The Lawyer understands that when issues with the IT system became known, the Bar Council told sets that they would only be able to download the applications directly from the gateway with all applicants’ personal details on the forms. Another option would be to use an external contractor (paid for by the Bar Council) to remove this information to keep the process blind.

It is understood that some sets took the applications non-blind due to the large volume of applications they had received, and due to concerns that an external contractor would cause a further delay to an already-lengthy process that also has strict deadlines. The Lawyer understands that at least one set that took this option had a member of chambers’ personnel remove the data manually before giving it to those involved with the application process.

Other sets at the Bar took the external contractor option, which The Lawyer understands also created issues. One set claimed that the applications were then delayed by three days, and when they were returned, they were still not fully anonymised, with details such as education still visible.

Other glitches with the system saw the applicant’s name appear on the document’s title even after it was returned ‘anonymised’, an issue the Bar Council had to correct. Another meant alternate email addresses were the only contact details provided for chambers to contact applicants for interviews, rather than the applicant’s primary email address.

A source at one set described the process as “a total nightmare” and said that its sifters “lost trust in the process,” resulting in internal personnel at chambers frequently double-checking information during the process to check it was correct. It was also said that the documents provided were not user-friendly, further adding to delays in the process.

Sets are required to use the gateway portal to arrange interview slots for candidates. However, there were complaints that this caused issues as interview slots could not be moved around on the system.

The 2022/23 recruitment timetable is the first year the Bar Council has run its revamped Pupillage Gateway, with the new platform running since September.

The Bar Council has a history of complaints relating to previous pupillage application systems, OLPAS and Pupillage Portal, both of which were plagued with problems. The body updated its current platform after being forced to extend deadlines for applicants when they complained about the Gateway’s slow operating speed in 2019.

A spokesperson for the Bar Council said: “Whilst the anonymisation of pupillage applications is not mandatory, it has been promoted by the Bar Council for a considerable number of years as it ensures fairness and reduces bias in the recruitment process.

“The new platform for the pupillage application process for 2023 was not able to automatically provide anonymisation and so the Bar Council managed the process manually for every Authorised Education and Training Organisation (AETO) that requested it. Some opted to undertake their own anonymisation.

“We apologised directly to those AETOs using the Pupillage Gateway for the delay that the manual redaction process caused to their recruitment processes and have not received any reports indicating that those who wanted to blind mark their applications were unable to do so.”

In 2022, the Bar Council launched a new Pupillage Gateway after the previous version of the site was closed.

The Bar Council added: “The providers of the new platform offered an ‘all or nothing’ approach to anonymisation which didn’t meet the needs of AETOs, so we requested development work on the site to accommodate the correct levels of anonymisation. Unfortunately, these changes were not made available in time for the 2023 process and so the Bar Council provided an alternative option of manual redaction. We are now working with the platform provider and chambers/AETOs to make sure the correct processes are all in place for the next round of pupillage recruitment. It is essential that the pupillage recruitment process is fair and accessible, and we welcome feedback from pupillage applicants and advertisers.”