The number of students applying for the bar professional training course (BPTC) soared by almost 17% last year as the number of pupillages continued to drop.

The second annual ‘Bar Barometer’ report published jointly by the Bar Council and the Bar Standards Board shows that 3,099 applications were made for the BPTC in 2010/11, up 16.6% from 2,657 in 2009/10.

At the same time the number of pupillages declined, with 446 first sixes registered in 2010/11, down 3% from 460 the previous year, and 477 second sixes, down by 3.6%. Since 2004/05 the number of pupillages has fallen 20%.

The number of tenancies registered in 2010/11, however, went up by almost 16% to 541.

Overall the number of barristers remained roughly the same – 15,581, up by 1.2% from the previous year. Of these, 81% were self-employed. The number of employed barristers fell by 2%.

The retention of female barristers within the profession remains a problem - over half (52%) the students who enrolled on the BPTC were women, but female barristers make up only 35% of the practising profession. Women also account for only 12% of the 1,486 silks at the self-employed bar.

The data also shows that 10.2% of barristers practising in 2010/11 were from a black or minority ethnic background, and less than 1% had a disability.

Commenting on the declining number of pupillages, a Bar Council spokesman said: ‘Recruiting the most talented students is a priority for the bar and on an annual basis, competition is fierce, with pupils drawn from an exceptionally able candidate base.

‘However, for many parts of the profession, particularly on the public-funded side, it is increasingly difficult to fund pupillage places. Many sets of chambers are awaiting the full impact of severe cuts to legal aid fees to emerge and understandably want to be confident of a sustainable future for tenants before offering more pupillage places,’ he said.

Chair of the Young Barristers’ Committee David Nicholls added: ‘There is a tension between what we want to achieve in maximising the number of very high-quality students from a diverse range of backgrounds who apply for the BPTC and alerting people to the fact it is very competitive and still a small profession.’

He said the introduction of an aptitude test for BPTC students may help, but added that more could be done to communicate the message about competitiveness to aspiring barristers.