Pupillage - the way ahead

Government legal aid proposals; the shrinking effect on the Bar and on pupillages available; the need for a solution to the pupillage crisis; and one possible answer

Contributor
Maura McGowan QC, Chairman of the Bar

The autumn of 2013 will see Government proposals which may bring about the greatest changes to the provision of legally aided representation in criminal cases since the introduction of public funding for those accused of crime. The last two years have seen the most fundamental reduction of legal aid provision in family and general civil work since the introduction of legal aid in 1948.


The commercial Bar, in all its forms, is thriving but, given the wider economic climate, not expanding. We live in “interesting times”. The Chinese curse.

In addition to those financial constraints, the supply of work to the Bar and the need for our legal services is decreasing. Some would argue that at about 12,500, the size of the self-employed Bar has outgrown its “niche” as the provider of specialist, referral advocacy and advice. In crime, there is a reduction in the volume of work and solicitor advocates now carry out between one-quarter and one-third of the advocacy done in the Crown Court and the overwhelming bulk of the work in the magistrates’ court. In family and civil, whole areas have been removed from scope and there is an increasing trend towards alternative dispute resolution and litigants representing themselves in those cases which do go to court. Even in commercial work, solicitors are more likely to hold on to more of the work that traditionally went to the junior Bar. There are new areas of practice and market but it does seem that the overall trend is towards contraction rather than stability, let alone expansion.

The inevitable shrinking of the Bar which follows from the abolition or drastic reduction of public funding in some of these areas and the reduction in volume of work will aggravate the already exceptionally difficult position of thousands of qualified applicants for pupillage.

This year, around 3,500 candidates have applied for pupillage. The number of places available will be considerably less.

That ten times the number of people apply for the places available is an appalling statistic. In each individual case it is a heart-breaking fact. The cause of this problem was not of our making. Is the solution within our control?

Before 1998, there was only one “Bar school” but it was decreed that this was indefensible. That it was in London was a criticism, but as Bluebottle regularly said in The Goons, “Everybody’s got to be somewhere!”

Even in the days of the single college, not everyone got a tenancy or the job of their choice but almost everybody got a pupillage and thereby the chance to compete in practice for a start at the Bar. The composition of the intake was not determined by the family wealth, gender or ethnicity of the candidate, rather by their academic record. Academic pedigree, whilst not necessarily a perfect guide to future success, is nonetheless not a bad starting place.

There are now nine BPTC providers turning out applicants for places at the Bar; about 1,700 graduate, and a substantial proportion try to pursue a career in practice. All of those students pay academic fees of between £15,000 and £17,000. For many, that’s on top of their undergraduate debt. It would seem that these days family money is likely to play an increasingly important part in the prospects of those students.

At least one of the major providers would welcome a change towards shaping specific Bar courses to the future area of practice of the candidate for pupillage. Where possible they are keen to offer a course more focused on the area of practice in pupillage, as they already do for many of the major City firms. They could work with the Inns in shaping the course to fit the needs of the student. All signs are pointing us towards greater levels of specialisation, in order to meet future needs; completing a course more specifically designed to match the subject area of pupillage would be a valuable contribution to the improvement of legal education and training.

How we ended up in this position may not be important any more. How we put it right is vital and urgent.

If someone has the will and the funding to complete the Bar course come what may, fine. It’s their choice, if they are able to exercise it. There is always value in education and the qualification still carries prestige in many other disciplines. If, however, the desire to do the course depends on the prospect of putting it into practice, then should we not try to even the odds?

Some specialist sets, particularly commercial ones, now offer places conditional upon successful completion of the Bar course. The intention is to recruit the brightest and the best ahead of the competition. Why can all sets not do the same for those applicants who wish to know if they have any realistic prospect of securing a pupillage before they sign up to, and pay for, the course? It would mean one year of double the work for chambers and the Bar Council but in the long term, would it not be a much fairer system for those students for whom another £25,000 spent in pursuit of the unattainable may be a sacrifice too far?

Nobody, currently eligible, would be denied a place but those taking the chance would be better informed. We owe that to prospective candidates, at least.

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