Time called on Bar arguments

June 14, 1996

As the Bar Council proposes reforms in barristers' training, two legal eagles respond to Nigel Savage's criticisms of the Lord Chancellor's committee. As an official of one of the two authorised bodies to whom the Lord Chancellor's Advisory Committee's First Report on Legal Education is addressed, it is incumbent upon me to consider its recommendations and the comments upon it by those like Nigel Savage (THES, May 17) who are influential in the provision of education and training and will therefore be directly affected by any changes.

Dr Savage is correct when he states that "the much criticised prescriptive attitude (of the professional bodies) does not stand the test of close scrutiny". Having been a party to the negotiations which resulted in the present Joint Announcement on Qualifying Law Degrees, I can testify that any pressure to increase the amount of prescribed material - ie "the core" - came more from the Society of Public Teachers of Law than the professional bodies. In respect of the report, one cannot help but notice that, while on the one hand criticising prescription, the Lord Chancellors' committee begins itself to fall into the trap of appearing to increase the "core" by, for example, suggesting the inclusion of civil law! However, it is time to end the arguments about the core and to undertake a radical reappraisal of the notion of the qualifying law degree. There are more than 250 full-time qualifying law degrees, part-time degrees and 14 senior status degrees offered in more than 70 higher education institutions. In addition there are 29 full-time and 23 part-time and distance learning graduate conversion courses. Output from all of these is well over 12,000 students per year. On the other hand, there are around 1,000 places on the Bar Vocational Course. On completion, the successful students will be chasing 700 pupillages and then competing for the 500 tenancies which arise each year. It is important to note that the Bar is growing - from 2,000 in 1955 to approximately 8,500 in 1995 - and it must be questionable whether growth on this scale can continue. However, assuming that the Bar requirements are for 500 new practitioners each year, does it require all these law courses? The question must therefore be asked whether the Bar should dictate the content of so many courses when its needs are so small? Further, is it right for resources provided by subscribers to the Bar Council to be used to police all these courses?

The argument and debate upon modularisation and semesterisation to which Dr Savage refers is likely to rage for some time yet. Thankfully, it is not a matter of direct concern to the professional bodies. The law faculties are made up of people who hold themselves out as the professional teachers. It is necessary for them to adapt to change which is forced upon them. If Dr Savage is suggesting that the professional bodies should allow themselves to become involved in the internal debates of autonomous institutions on the delivery of educational provision, it is a suggestion that is unlikely to attract support even within law faculties.

A key feature in the report is common training. The Bar Council's policy was laid down in 1994 when it accepted the principle that there should be "an element of common vocational training for prospective barristers and solicitors if and to the extent that this is compatible with vocational training for an independent Bar". We believe that this is likely to be best achieved by building on the experience gained by institutions which will be running the two vocational courses alongside one another. In this respect, one agrees with Dr Savage. However, his suggestion that common training will happen "without the professions noticing" is unlikely. Certainly the Bar will be vigilant to ensure that any common training develops for sound educational reasons determined in the context of the training needs of the Bar. Any attempt by a validated institution to slip it in as a money saving issue will quickly place that institution's approval to offer a BVC in jeopardy.

ACLEC's own proposal is for common education through a new truncated course leading to a qualification in common professional legal studies. The contributions to the debate on whether such a proposal is realistic will be long and protracted. Resources would be needed to support the research necessary to determine content and to run the proposed board to be set up to superintend the courses when offered. It is questionable whether the Bar Council will see funding the development of such a course as having a high priority for its limited resources.

The Bar Council has yet to reach any conclusions on the report. Therefore the views expressed here are entirely my own and should be seen as provoking debate.

Nigel Bastin

Head of education and training of the general council of the Bar.

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