The chair of the Bar Council has raised concerns about whether alternative business structures should be permitted at the bar, shortly after its regulator applied to license them.

In a speech to the Australian Bar Association, Alistair MacDonald QC said there were a ‘whole raft of concerns and questions’ about the independence of lawyers in entities with controlling interests outside the law, and about whether this would create a conflict of interest.

He also questioned whether, in a sector such as criminal legal aid, it would be ‘appropriate’ to have entities in the market ‘who are there with the primary purpose of simply maximising profit’.

MacDonald said: ‘Governments have an apparently insatiable appetite to tinker with institutions without fully appreciating the effects of their actions. This alleged innovation may be another example of that tendency.’

MacDonald also addressed the issues about the ‘astronomical’ costs of the bar training course, which combined with the limited amount of pupillages, leaves ‘large numbers of highly qualified people who bear the bar ill will’.

‘There is nothing like, as they would see it, being a reject, to fuel resentment and recrimination against those who have been successful,’ he said. 

He called for an overhaul of the course, which would include breaking it into two parts, with the first knowledge-based part delivered online followed by a tough exam.

Bringing this part of the course online, based on suggestions from the director of the Council of the Inns of Court, James Wakefield, would be ‘much cheaper and much more flexible than the current system’, MacDonald said.

The exam would also be tough enough to ensure those who pass are more likely to have a chance of obtaining a pupillage, he added. He also proposed the second, practical, part of the court should be much shorter.

He said: ‘I have every reason to believe that this system will be accepted and will become available in the foreseeable future. It simply must be in the interest of the bar to reduce the cost of training to a manageable sum.’

Highlighting the need for change, MacDonald noted that while 1,700 people passed the bar qualification in 2014, there were just 425 pupillages on offer that year.

‘Because our system permits people to be called the the bar once they have passed the qualifying exams, we are, year on year, adding many hundreds of people to the bar register who are not, in reality, barristers at all since they have not carried out a pupillage,’ he said, warning that this devalues the brand.