Part-time pupillage: making it work

Dianne Martin and Dr Kate Harrington recount their respective experiences of setting up, and undertaking, one of the Bar’s first part-time pupillages and consider its wider applicability

Dianne Martin:

Recommendation 33 of Lord Neuberger’s ‘Entry to the Bar’ Final Report (2007) states that: ‘Subject to appropriate monitoring and supervision, pupils should be permitted to seek to undertake their pupillages part-time, where it is feasible and the pupil’s circumstances make it desirable.’ Paragraphs 246 to 261 of the report discuss the various possibilities, suggesting that a pupillage could be undertaken over a period of 18 or 24 months and including what are called ‘flexi-weeks’ and ‘monthly units’.

When one of St John’s Chambers’ longstanding academic door tenants retired, Chambers began the search for an academic to take their place. We have always valued our links with the academic side of the profession. Academics can give us perspectives on matters which we, as practitioners, might otherwise overlook. Equally, having a close-up view of what we actually do in our cases, day to day, can help academics to understand that the majority of clients simply want to resolve their disputes and are not primarily seeking clarification of some abstruse point of law by the Court of Appeal.

Given that we were planning to foster another long-term relationship, we thought it would be better if the chosen candidate could do a pupillage in Chambers, thereby forging closer links with members, in addition to acquiring a real appreciation of what the role entails. Given the dual commitments, a part-time pupillage for a longer period than the usual 12 months seemed to be the obvious solution. However how would this work in practice?

After much thought, we decided that a combination of monthly units and flexi-weeks over a two-year period would be the most appropriate structure, on the basis that an academic would probably find it easier to attend for units of time during vacation periods, with greater flexibility during term time to fit in with lecturing and examination commitments.

Having had no previous experience of part-time pupillages, our next step was to put together a paper outlining the structure and essential features of the proposed pupillage for consideration by the Bar Standards Board (BSB). We also had to consider the potential impact on other pupillages in Chambers. Traditionally, St John’s Chambers has offered two or three funded pupillages each year via the Gateway process. Given that we regarded this pupillage as being in a separate category, and because the candidate would continue working, it was not proposed that the pupillage would be funded. We wanted to ensure that we neither reduced the number of funded pupils in Chambers, which has remained at two or three per year, nor compromised on the high level of support given to our pupils by their individual supervisors and members of Chambers generally.

This could have created a problem, given the two-year commitment required. However, a senior member of our Chancery and Commercial team, who confessed that he had last had a pupil in the mid-1990s, stepped up and we sent him off on a pupil supervisor’s course to ensure that he was up to speed with the duties of the modern pupil supervisor. Finally, with some trepidation that they might reject the whole idea out of hand, we sent the papers to the BSB. Our concern was completely misplaced: the BSB could not have been more helpful. Ultimately, following some useful input from them, the matter was put before the Qualifications Committee, which approved the relevant waivers with respect to funding and timescales.

Having obtained support from the head of her university department, Dr Kate Harrington, who has an impressive academic pedigree together with a special interest in the clarification of English used in the courts, started her pupillage with us in late summer 2014.

Kate Harrington:

Having completed the non-practising first year of my two-year part-time pupillage, I have now embarked on the practising part, which has been both exciting and challenging. My first case was a Domestic Violence Protection Order listed for 10am in an outlying Magistrates’ Court. ‘An easy morning to get you started,’ I was told. These words were still ringing in my ears at some time after 6pm when I wearily got the train home.

Whilst many part-time appointments can be fitted around full-time employment by working in the evenings or at weekends, with pupillage this is obviously not the case. There have been inevitable clashes and my university commitments have had to take precedence. It’s not usually acceptable to tell 400 students waiting for a lecture on pure economic loss that you are not going to turn up because you think a site view, about a right of way over a Cotswold sheep farm, seems much more interesting. Equally, a six-day High Court trial with my pupil supervisor was listed during an international conference on promoting plain legal language. To ensure that nothing essential was missed out, we devised a schedule of what I needed to see and to do during the non-practising year and, one way or another, I managed to get it all done within the time – in two monthly units and the rest flexi-time.

There were some unnerving times when I feared it might not be possible. For instance, my department experienced sudden and unexpected staff shortages due to illness which needed to be covered. With very little notice, I had to deliver lectures and workshops on topics that were new to me, which meant considerable preparation and an unpredictable timetable. Given how equally unpredictable work at the Bar can be, that period was particularly difficult to manage. However, I was still able to fit in some days and do some of the work nearer to home, which meant I didn’t fall too far behind and was able to make up the time once the university exam season had passed.

Despite these difficulties, the pupillage itself has been both enjoyable and exceptionally instructive. My experiences of the reality of law in practice have also enabled me to enhance my teaching and research, which I hope will be of wider benefit. One practical reality is that all judges are individuals and the presentation of any case must be tailored to the tribunal you are appearing before. My first skeleton argument, for example, was carefully crafted and ran to many pages, with a schedule of the authorities on the first page coupled with a head-note style summary of the points discussed. My pupil supervisor smiled: ‘That’s academically brilliant,’ he said, ‘but the judge we are in front of probably won’t bother to read more than the first page.’ The first paragraph of his skeleton essentially said: ‘My client wins because of the decision of the Court of Appeal in Jones v. Smith’ and set out some relevant quotes from that case, which the judge duly included as part of his judgment.

As an academic with a background in linguistics research, I have a great interest in the use of language in the courts and how that might be made more accessible to the increasing number of unrepresented litigants. It has been most useful to see how this works close up. My interest also dovetails with the Transparency Project already successfully advanced by Lucy Reed and Sarah Phillimore in Chambers’ family team; and I have helped to deliver a workshop and seminar on this. I have also delivered a CPD accredited lecture to members of St John’s Chambers on the need to achieve clarity in the legal language used in courts which, I hope, was of wider interest to them than a lecture on obscure aspects of tort or land law.

Conclusions on part-time pupillage

At the mid-point of pupillage all the signs are positive. Both pupil and supervisor have so far survived to tell the tale. However we don’t think that part-time pupillage should be seen as a ‘norm’. A pupillage is a heavy commitment in itself and the difficulties of fitting that in with other professional and/or personal commitments over a two-year period should not be underestimated.

Having said that, the ability to offer part-time pupillage is something that a chambers should not overlook. For the right candidate, it will offer an opportunity to complete a pupillage which, for a variety of reasons, would not be viable within the usual 12-month structure.

The appropriate candidate probably needs to be extremely determined, with particularly robust personal and intellectual qualities. Clashes between commitments can be frustrating and the logistics and volume of work could overwhelm a less determined candidate.

From the point of view of a set of chambers offering a part-time pupillage, a key feature is flexibility. A part-time pupil is likely to have other commitments that are just as demanding as those presented by pupillage and supervisors will need to recognise that the pupil may simply not be able to attend some of the hearings or conferences originally arranged for them. As in any relationship, both pupil and Chambers need to believe in what they’re doing and work together towards their common goal.

Contributors: Dianne Martin is Head of the Pupillage Committee at St John’s Chambers, Bristol.
 Dr Kate Harrington is a part-time pupil at St John’s Chambers, Bristol.

Part-time pupillages – the BSB’s rules

The old Bar Code of Conduct required pupillage to be undertaken full-time. This reflected the realities of demand for the services of the independent Bar, which emerged from traditional ways of working, and tended to lend itself towards the full-time model of pupillage. However, we have always been prepared to consider alternatives that produce the same level of skill and experience, ready for practice.

The new BSB Handbook, which came into force in January 2014, removed the explicit requirement that pupillage be undertaken full-time. However, prospective part-time pupils still need to apply for approval if their proposed pupillage arrangements fall outside the regulations set out below. Our Future Bar Training consultation puts forward a number of approaches for achieving more flexibility without compromising, and even improving, standards to qualify for the Bar (see: www.barstandardsboard.org.uk/qualifying-as-a-barrister/future-bar-training).

The Bar Training Rules (s 4B of the BSB Handbook) state that:

  • The non-practising period of pupillage must be done in a continuous period of six months (rule Q34.2).
  • The practising period of pupillage must start within 12 months after completion of the non-practising period (rule Q35.1).
  • The practising period of pupillage must be completed within an overall period of nine months (rule Q35.2).

However, it is possible to apply to the BSB for dispensation from any of these requirements. The application form and guidance notes can be downloaded from the website. There is an application fee of £55.

Applications are determined by the Pupillage Panel of the Qualifications Committee. The Panel will normally reach a decision within six to eight weeks from the date of receipt of the application.

It is the prospective pupil who makes the application, but it should be supported by the chambers or other authorised training organisation that is offering the pupillage.

The BSB is supportive of the idea of part-time pupillages and will consider applications sympathetically. The BSB is committed to increasing diversity in the profession, which means considering the needs of potential candidates for pupillage who have caring responsibilities, or who have had a previous career and are training for the Bar later in life. There are many potential pupils who fall into this category who have positive skills and attributes to offer the Bar. However, it will need to be satisfied that the provider and the pupil have carefully thought through the implications of undertaking a pupillage part-time, so that there will be no adverse impact on the pupillage or, during the practising period, on clients.

The following matters will need to be addressed:

  • What precise pattern of pupillage is being proposed? This might be a shortened number of hours per day, a certain number of days per week or a pupillage undertaken in ‘blocks’ of a few weeks at a time.
  • How will court commitments be managed during the practising period of pupillage?
  • Who will be the point of contact for instructing solicitors and third parties when the pupil is not present?
  • What will be the funding arrangements between the pupil and provider?
  • Will all pupillage checklist requirements still be fulfilled?
  • What will be the arrangements for attendance at the compulsory pupillage courses?

Joanne Dixon and Angela Yin, Bar Standards Board

 

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