The Bar Professional Training Course has been condemned as too expensive, poor value for money and even ‘exploitative’, by barristers, pupils and students responding to a review of training.
The Bar Standards Board has said it is prepared to introduce ‘the most sweeping reforms to training in a generation’, as it launched a consultation developed following focus groups involving 51 individuals, including 21 practitioners.
Those involved in the focus groups voiced ‘strong concerns’ about the relevance of the BPTC, with some saying the qualification is not respected by the profession and lacks credibility. Others said the high cost was a barrier to diversity within the law.
One new practitioner said: ‘The BPTC is actually exploitative. Providers don’t care about you, they care about the money.’
The BSB admitted that the course - the cost of which can exceed £18,000 in London - was ‘very expensive’ to the extent that it was possibly deterring good candidates who were not in a position to take financial risks.
The regulator said that much of the high cost is driven by the high degree of prescription in its requirements, including very high teaching staff-to-student ratios and the minimum number of hours of classroom time.
It also said that due to the lack of wider recognition of the BPTC and the limited availability of places at the bar, many students are left unable to use the qualification they have invested in.
Although the BSB argued that the content of the course matches the purposes of vocational training, it identified a number of issues.
It said: ‘The substantial breadth of content in the knowledge-based subjects (civil and criminal procedure and evidence, for example) limit time on the course for skills training and practice… whilst knowledge gaps can be filled if someone has the right skills, this is much less true in reverse.’
Other issues included the content mix, which excludes topics which may be important for practice, such as family procedure, and the rigidly framed skills training element which ‘do not always reflect or keep up with the application of those skills in real practice’.
The BSB outlined three options: to continuously improve the current model; allow any training that demonstrates the barrister has achieved the required outcomes; or to specify and control only a final stage of training.
It suggested a solution might be a ‘hybrid’ of all three.
The review also identified several issues with pupillages where the shortage of places has led to reports of ‘unfair practices’ in the form of ‘explosive offers’ – when candidates are told they must respond to offers within a short timeframe.
‘Pupillages are “scarce goods” in a complex market: demand currently significantly exceeds supply. This may mean the area is more susceptible to anti-competitive or abusive market behaviour or to discriminatory practices, as the majority of those seeking the pupillages have very little bargaining power,’ the BSB said.
It also said some pupils experience poor training or inappropriate treatment from supervisors, with low reporting rates as pupils are highly dependent on their training organisations.
The BSB’s proposals include making pupillages more flexible and shifting regulatory attention towards pupillage training organisations.
The consultation runs until 30 October.
Meanwhile, the Bar Council has brought forward its centralised pupillage application system from April to January, meaning students will know if they have a place in chambers before committing to the BPTC.