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How to increase access to the Bar - July-19-12
Source: The Times - Law
Encouraging pupils at non-fee paying schools to consider a career at the Bar will influence the judiciary of the future
More than 93 per cent of the population are educated in non-fee paying schools, so it is a very pressing question for the Bar as to how many of these students make it through to the profession and critically, at a later stage, into the judiciary.
The issue of course, goes further than this, because it inevitably begs the question as to diversity at the Bar in relation to women and ethnic minorities and their prospects for judicial preferment.
The problem is one of the most important questions for the profession over the next decade, because those who seek to qualify and practise now are the future Crown Court, High Court, Appeal Court and Supreme Court judiciary of the future.
Both the Bar and the judiciary are acutely aware of this social time bomb and are taking steps to deal with it. Some years ago, Baroness Neuberger identified the need for a “fundamental shift in approach” towards diversity in the judiciary, but the present crop of judges reflect little change.
A total of 15 out of 17 Supreme Court judges and heads of division are from independent schools and Oxbridge; of the 114 High Court Judges, 83 also went to independent schools and 82 to Oxbridge, 22 went to Russell Group universities. Furthermore, one in six High Court judges are women and less than 5 per cent BME.
Present statistics provided by the Bar Standards Board also reflect that a majority of barristers [65.2 per cent] are men and only 10.1 per cent are ethnic minorities.
Yet there is a danger that present figures represented by attitudes of more than 20 years ago are distorting the real progress being made at the Bar in relation to social mobility.
For instance, as approximately 8 per cent of the UK working population identify themselves as BME, the Bar has a high level of ethnic minorities, particularly so compared to other professions.
Last week the Social Mobility Foundation and the Bar joined forces to deliver a Bar placement week, whereby nearly 100 state school students were given the chance of being seconded to chambers to experience life at the Bar and most importantly make invaluable contacts for the future.
Sixty sets of chamber and 69 students will take part in this year’s scheme, making it the largest yet. All the students are from schools with a higher than average take-up of free school meals and would be the first in their families to attend university. All are predicted to achieve at least ABB grades at A Level.
From my involvement with social mobility for more than a decade and most recently with this and other projects run by the Citizenship Foundation, it is clear that state school students inherently lack the contacts and at times encouragement to aspire to a career at the Bar.
Furthermore, there is no doubt that although many teachers at state schools give quality advice and support to those students who aspire, there are many, albeit with good intentions, who positively discourage state school students from trying for a career at the Bar, on the ground that it is populated by pupils from independent education and Oxbridge.
But on the basis of recent figures, that could not be further from the truth. And here lies the complexity of the problem and the reason why the continued Government attacks upon the criminal and publicly funded Bar are, at their root, dangerously damaging the cause of social mobility.
Statistics from the Bar Standards Bar and the Bar Council show that the vast majority of women and BME barristers work in crime and publicly funded disciplines. These same statistics reveal relatively very few women and ethnic minorities in, say, commercial or international law. So when the government continue to savage, say, the criminal Bar, they are cutting with the same knife social mobility across the profession.
The irony of all this will not be lost on those who read Alan Milburn’s recent report on social diversity in the professions, published in May. His criticism of the legal profession for failing to meet the mark on this issue comes across as somewhat selective; when the truth is that his government and the present coalition presided and continue to preside over the most sustained attack uon the publicly funded Bar in history.
Of course, more can be done, but recent figures recently provided by one of the Inns of Court, Inner Temple, give a cause for hope in the future. Of new entrants to the Bar in that Inn, 48 per cent are male and 52 per cent are female. In 2009-10, 40 per cent of Inner Temple pupils completed their degrees at universities outside the Russell Group and pupils from families in the top two socio-economic groups were virtually equal to other groups.
These are the statistics of the future that are broadly reproduced elsewhere and reflect positively on the work being done by the Bar, work that will impact upon the future judiciary.
But it is not a cause to be complacent. Social mobility will be a — if not the — most important priority for the healthy and fair future of the profession.
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