The Inns of Court are an essential part of the Bar. In recent years, their role was reviewed as part of the Bar Standards Board (BSB) Future Bar Training consultation. In April 2019, the Inns of Court and BSB published a Memorandum of Understanding which clarified the Inns’ duties. As we begin a new decade, it seems timely to appraise again how the Inns operate and scope for positive externalities.

A quick history

In other industries, such as accountancy, a single institution (the ICAEW) undertakes roles equivalent to those shared across the Inns of Court, Bar Council and the BSB. Solicitors are represented and regulated by two bodies – the Law Society and the Solicitors Regulation Authority. One may wonder why the Bar operates four Inns of Court. The answer is rooted in its long history. The Inns of Court emerged as Britain moved from a Roman civil law system to an English common law system in 1218. Both Henry II and Henry III issued proclamations prohibiting the teachings of civil law in the City of London. This led to common law practitioners relocating their premises and forming the Inns of Court. Four Inns were naturally created as a result of this relocation: Inner Temple, Middle Temple, Lincoln’s Inn, and Gray’s Inn. The Inns of Court served, as is suggested by their names, as places for barristers to lodge, train, and carry out their profession. Interestingly, prior to the creation of the Law Society, there were several Inns of Chancery. Following the First English Civil War, the Inns of Chancery served as accommodation and offices purely for solicitors. In 1823, the Inns of Chancery were abolished in favour of the Law Society.

Vital component of the Bar

Following the review, the BSB concluded that the Inns of Court remain a vital component of the Bar and that membership of an Inn should remain compulsory for students who are training for the Bar. The existence of the Inns of Court is also enshrined in the Legal Services Act 2007 among other legislation.

The first formal duty is provision of membership to student barristers prior to their enrolment into the Bar Training Course. The purpose of this membership is to facilitate the Inn’s duty to perform checks on their students and to also oversee their conduct. The Inns ultimately need to reach a conclusion on whether the students are ‘fit and proper’ to be called to the Bar. Should there be any alleged misconduct by members, it is the Inn’s responsibility to investigate the matter and take action.

The second duty is to provide qualifying sessions for students. These sessions are viewed as complementing the vocational training component of the Bar course. Each Inn is responsible for devising a programme of qualifying sessions in line with the guidelines agreed with the BSB. Qualifying sessions can range from lectures and formal dinners to debating and mooting competitions. Longer programmes include advocacy training weekends at Cumberland Lodge in Windsor and elsewhere, which has been traditionally worth three qualifying sessions.

The third duty is to call eligible members to the Bar. From 2021, this will include a standard Disclosure and Barring Service check for every member being called.

The Inns of Court also offer a space for members to develop a community of professional practice. The Inns are equipped with endowments to provide ample scholarships, and many other facilities for members including their libraries.

Revitalising the Inns

The debate about the role of the Inns has now transitioned to what more they could offer to their members. Indeed, I would argue that a recent development has revitalised their role – the re-introduction of Bar training via the Inns of Court College of Advocacy, which brings to the Inns a renewed raison d’être. From September 2020, the Inns will directly provide a Bar Training Course on their premises. This has considerably driven down the prices of the Bar Training Course, with some academic institutions reducing their tuition fees from over £18,000 to approximately £13,000.

Looking ahead, I would like to see the Inns more involved in pupillage. The Inns currently offer student members a range of work-based learning opportunities to better equip themselves in their quest for pupillage. For example, the Middle Temple Students’ Association hosts an annual series of pupillage events to help applicants. However, there are bigger obstacles pertaining to pupillage. In the 2017/18 academic year, there were 1,624 students enrolled onto the BPTC. With an increasing backlog of candidates, there are now almost 3,000 applicants for pupillage positions each year. Meanwhile, only 435 pupillage positions are available. This means that a very high proportion of aspiring barristers who successfully complete their examinations are not successful.

In light of these figures, I would like to see the Inns and BSB start a new conversation regarding pupillage. A detailed review of this matter may highlight some potential solutions. The BSB has been clear that pupillage is an important element of the Bar Training Course. However, there may be more that could be done to increase the number of pupillages on offer.

According to some barristers, current limitations include a lack of space or resources in chambers. Although the Pupillage Matched Funding Scheme administered by the COIC (Council of the Inns of Court) has led to a contribution of £60,000 per annum from each Inn of Court towards pupillage, many agree that the industry also faces a physical expansion problem. In my opinion, one solution could be the creation of a large co-working space with built-in collaborating environments – following the models of Regus or WeWork. This may be difficult to execute, but a conversion of one of the grand gardens to such an infrastructure may help chambers to expand their practice. Additionally, a lesson learned from the COVID-19 pandemic could be that a large percentage of work may be conducted from home. Chambers might be able to increase their intake without necessarily requiring additional space.

Such a move may also take the Inns back to their fundamental roots, when they operated as a place for barristers to practise. The Bar is primarily a self-employed practice. It is disheartening to see that the constraints faced by chambers are slowing down the industry growth that the profession may benefit from.

Could the Inns step in here? They have traditionally been a place for members to lodge, train, and carry out their profession. If they were to collaborate with one another and provide a direct co-working space, it could ease the pupillage queue as well as catalysing industry growth.