This article responds to ‘The timing of call’ by Nick Vineall KC and Fallon Alexis, which was published in the December 2023 issue of Counsel. In my respectful view there are major concerns – one ‘internal’ and the other ‘external’ – as to the proposal to defer call until after the obtaining of a practising certificate.

The external concern is easier to explain and its consequences are easier to predict. Our tradition of enabling students from overseas to be called to the Bar has not only achieved the surely desirable objective of strengthening our links with a good number of overseas jurisdictions. Perhaps more importantly it has encouraged the preservation of the tradition of specialist advocacy in those jurisdictions and thereby strengthened the rule of law in those countries. It is inevitable that if no one can be called to the Bar unless and until they have completed a pupillage in this jurisdiction, the number of individuals joining the Inns from abroad will be drastically reduced; indeed, quite intentionally, that source of membership will be virtually extinguished overnight. To my mind such a development will not only diminish the historic role of the Inns overseas, but it will of course lead very quickly to a drastic reduction in the number of those participating in call ceremonies, which will soon become a very visible symbol of the Inns’ diminished role.

The internal concern, which is even more significant, does in some ways reflect the external aspect. The consequence of deferral of call will place the decision as to who is willing and able to apply to join an Inn of Court almost exclusively in the hands of existing sets of chambers/employers, who alone can decide to whom to offer pupillages, and who cannot be criticised for adopting a potentially restrictive stance on this issue. It seems to me self-evident that if we move to a system in which no one can even be eligible to be called to the Bar unless and until they have completed pupillage, then the number of those seeking to join an Inn of Court is bound to drop sharply and significantly, with many bright graduates choosing instead to follow the path to becoming a solicitor. The authors of the December article themselves acknowledge that deferral of call will lead to a reduction in the number of people undertaking the Bar course.

The net result will be a branch of the profession which is gradually less diverse, and certainly perceived as less diverse and more socially exclusive. It will also be a profession which is very unlikely to expand at anything like the rate at which it has expanded during our professional lifetimes, and indeed it will be a profession which will fairly soon start to contract in numbers. Yet the future of the Bar as a separate branch of the legal profession, and the future of self-regulation under the Bar Standards Board, is inextricably linked to the size and numerical strength of the profession. We cannot hope to exercise continuing influence, both within the legal profession itself and more widely, unless we maintain and indeed increase our numbers as we have done steadily over the last 50 years. A decision in favour of deferral is therefore likely to put our branch of the profession on a downward path, at the very least from a reputational point of view, just at the moment when it is already vulnerable to competition in the commercial sphere from the major law firms, and by reason of funding constraints in the publicly funded sphere. At the same time, a reduction in numbers will likely hinder the Inns in their ability post-pandemic to re-invigorate their lettings arrangements.

In the light of the above strategic risks, the possibility of what is described as ‘confusion’ as to the role of someone called but not yet authorised to practise can carry little weight. Indeed, in 2007 the Bar Standards Board itself, after a wide-ranging consultation exercise, rejected the idea of deferral, holding that its public register of those with practising certificates provided sufficient clarity as to the identity of those entitled to practise as barristers.