Working Theory

by Michael Reed


I do employment law for the Free Representation Unit.


michael at


Thoughts on the BCAT

20 February 2013

The Bar Standards Board has encountered controversy over the Bar Course Aptitude Test. It turn out that it will cost £150, not £67.

I original saw this via Legal Cheek and it’s been doing the rounds on twitter. There’s more background in the BSB’s consultation document.

Some thoughts.

First, I think some of the commentary on twitter misses the motive behind the Test. It’s not intended to solve the perennial problem of there being just under 500 pupillages and just over 2,500 students enrolled on the Bar Course. If anything, it will make that situation worse.

At the moment the ‘first-sit’ pass rate on the Bar Course is 68% and, following resits, the pass rate is 87%. The main point of the BCAT is that the Bar Standards Board is concerned that are too many weak students on the course (unfair to them and to more able students who are held back). So, if it works as expected, the pass rate should go up. So there will be more people chasing the pupillages.

Second, this reminds me of something interesting about the Bar and its selection methods. The professional training is not, and in the foreseeable future won’t be, the gatekeeper to the profession. If you train as a medic, the difficult thing is to get into medical school as an undergraduate. Essentially, it is the medical schools who decide who will be a doctor. There is, of course, a lot of training and testing after that, but pass rates are high. The key competition to become a doctor is making it onto the undergraduate course.

At the Bar, in contrast, the course providers don’t play any real role in selection. I see (albeit generally briefly) about 500 aspiring barristers pass through FRU each year. I can’t recall anyone who I regarded as a promising candidate for the Bar who was stopped because they couldn’t get on the Bar Course or because they didn’t pass it. The key decision point is at pupillage (and to a lesser extent tenancy) decisions and done by chambers.

This means that decisions about access to the profession are highly decentralised and left to individual barristers in individual chambers. There are advantages and disadvantages to that.

Given the range of chambers, and the fact that the qualities needed to be a good criminal barrister are not the same qualities needed to be a good commercial barrister, which are not the same qualities needed to be a good family barrister, flexibility is important. Centralising these decisions would be difficult. But it does leave each set on their own to develop their own approach. This is a heavy burden on time and expertise.

In any event, the fact that the Bar Course is not the key decision point is why I’m not worried about whether the test will do a good job of determining whether someone will make a good barrister or not. It probably won’t – it tests a narrow range of the necessary abilities to a low standard. But that’s not what it’s trying to do. It’s trying to identify people who definitely won’t make good barristers and keep them off the course. That’s a quite different thing.

It’s also why I’m not particularly worried about one element of the potential equality impact. The fact that you can retake the test as many times as you like, provided you have the money, gives an advantage to people who can afford to do so. Potentially, you can buy your way onto the Bar Course.

This is a bad thing in principle. But, if you’re really having difficulty with the BCAT, I suspect buying your way onto the course isn’t going to do you any good. You’re very unlikely to make it any further. Conversely, if you’re going to make it through pupillage selection, you probably won’t need to retake the BCAT.

This doesn’t mean that there isn’t a problem. The cost may just put off good, but financially strapped, candidates. The fact that richer people can resit more easily may have a small, yet still undesirable, impact. But I think if this will be a problem, it’ll be a small one in the context of the overall picture.

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