Attendees at the Bar Council’s annual conference were treated to an absolute masterclass in delivery from Lady Justice Rafferty. Delivering the keynote address, Rafferty spoke with poise and dry wit in defence of an elite.

The word makes many at the bar shuffle – it does not appear to sit comfortably with laudable efforts being made to increase social mobility and embrace diversity and inclusivity. Rafferty asked: ‘Do you see yourselves as an elite? If you don’t, why don’t you? What is it about that word which makes you want to avoid it?’

In posing the question, she was not extolling the virtue of a social elite – a sort of private members’ club that only the select few join if they attended the right school or university, or had the right heritage.

That was far from what she had in mind. Her elite went hand in hand with aspiration. The difference between the two, she suggested, is that aspiration is the starter and membership of the elite of the top layer comes later – it is the thing you strive towards.

‘Excellence is through industry achieved’, as Shakespeare put it in The Two Gentlemen of Verona – that is the elite to which Rafferty referred.

However, statistics in the second ‘Bar Barometer’ report, published this week, suggests the trend is moving towards the wrong sort of elite. Looking at the figures for those who got pupillage in 2010/11 compared with 2009/10, the percentage who attended Oxbridge and Russell Group universities increased markedly.

In 2010/11, 35% of pupils attended Oxbridge, up from 23% in 2009/10, the percentage from Russell Group universities was 64%, up from 46% The percentage of pupils who came from a professional background jumped from 55% to 81%. And, astonishingly, 22.5% of pupils said they had no debt.

These figures seem to suggest that the pool from which aspiring barristers are being drawn is narrowing, despite the emphasis that has been put on improving social mobility. This would be a backward step for the profession.

Catherine Baksi is a reporter on the Gazette

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