Pupillage move fuels race fears

FEARS of indirect racial discrimination at the Bar have surfaced again.

Black lawyer groups and the Bar Council's own race relations committee are concerned that a proposal to delay call to the Bar until after six month's pupillage will be unfair to ethnic minorities.

The committee and others say the proposal could add to problems of discrimination already facing black graduates of the Council of Legal Education (CLE) course.

They say it will further disadvantage those who fail to attain pupillage but who wish to use the title of barrister, traditionally conferred on completion of the course, when pursuing other careers.

Opponents say a greater proportion of ethnic minority students will be affected by the rule than white students. Statistics already show that a smaller percentage of successful black students make it into pupillage.

They say the kudos of the barrister title is an advantage to those seeking careers outside the profession.

Committee chair Bruce Coles QC says: “The committee has considered the potentially discriminatory features of this and is bringing these to the attention of the Bar chairman.”

Barrister Salish Mehta, chair of the Society of Asian Lawyers, says: “Certainly we will be opposing this proposal and doing everything we can to make sure it doesn't go through council. This could be of major importance.”

The change relating to the title was among a raft of proposals aiming to modernise the Bar and announced by Bar Council Chairman Peter Goldsmith QC in his inaugural speech in December.

The race relations committee will write to Goldsmith to set out its concerns, which will be the first test of the new chairman's policy since taking over on 1 January.

CLE secretary John Taylor says conferring the barrister title before pupillage is a “historical anomaly – it's crazy to call people barristers when they can't practise as such”.

He says the proposal, thought to be coming in with validation of other colleges to run the Bar course in three years' time, is “significant”, although whether it would disadvantage black students is “speculation”.

Meanwhile, the Bar's first ever anti-discrimination code, developed in close co-operation with the Law Society, should be adopted by May. The Bar Council is concerned at the refusal by the Inns of Court (except Inner Temple) to draft a similar code.