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There are three distinct stages that form part of the process of qualifying and training to become a barrister. They are academic, vocational and lastly, practical.
The academic stage consists of a law degree. There are various forms of law degree and for the law degree in question to count towards the overall qualification it's content needs to count as a qualifying law degree. This means that the degree needs to cover certain essential 'core' areas of the law to provide a good basis for further knowledge and development, There should be seven core subjects covered and each core subject covers a specific area of the law e.g. contract, tort, crime etc.
A non law degree or non qualifying law degree will still count towards the academic stage. A degree is, after all, an indicator that someone is capable of study and applying himself to learning and it is evidence of ability but it is felt that a non law degree lacks the foundation of knowledge about the law that may be important as a practising barrister. This potential shortfall in knowledge is covered by the requirement that the individual must take the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) otherwise known as the common professional examination. Whilst some will say that this is not a complete answer as it cannot make up for a good law degree, it does at least provide a good indicator as to someone’s potential. The common professional examination is taken after a one year post graduate diploma in law course. Mature students can take the course over 2 years. This puts non-law graduates on an equal platform with those who studied law at undergraduate level.
The standard requirement for completion of the academic stage is a UK honours degree (minimum lower second class honours) or its equivalent. This applies to both law and non-law degrees. The Bar Training Regulations do not accept Professional Qualifications in place of this requirement.
On top of this standard requirement, students must study the Foundations of Legal Knowledge, which form the academic stage of legal education and are compulsory for professional exemption purposes where students want to enter the vocational stage of legal education and training. Students will also need to show an expertise in legal research skills, the English legal system and another area of legal study.
The vocational or training stage is the second stage of training and is based around the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC). It is vocational in nature therefore the course is practical and job related as opposed to academic. Particular skill areas are identified and these become part of the course. Such areas will include drafting skills including opinions, legal research and advocacy and it will include role play. The course is available at a range of centres which include the Inns of Court School of Law, The College of Law, BPP and other university linked centres offering vocational training courses. The course is available either for one year on a full time basis or over two years if attendance is to be part time.
Before starting the BPTC students have to pass the Bar Course Aptitude Test (BCAT) and join an Inn of Court such as Temple Inn, Middle Temple or Gray’s Inn. Students will also be expected to attend various functions including formal dinners of which they must attend 12 or attend residential training courses during their BPTC. This may seem rather elitist and unnecessary but it does have some benefit in that it brings individuals into contact with practising barristers who are able to share knowledge about the nature of their job. At one time students would have needed to attend at London but there are now BPTC centres around the country.
Once a student has passed the BPTC they are eligible to be 'Called to the Bar' which effectively means they have qualified as a barrister. However there is still a final stage to their training which must be completed. This final stage is the practical stage.
Pupillage is the final and practical stage of training to become a barrister, which can commence up to five years after completing the BPTC. It is either completed in a set of chambers or with another Authorised Training Organisation (ATO). Pupillages usually start in September or October, one year after being accepted by the chambers (so, for example, successful April 2015 applicants will usually commence pupillage in autumn 2016). However, they may start at other times, depending on the set of chambers or ATO. Before applying for a pupillage many students will have taken on one or more mini-pupillages, a type of work experience for a short period of time in a set of chambers. Prospective pupils are also encouraged to participate in marshalling, sitting with a judge and discussing cases with him. Pro Bono work and any other activity which is likely to demonstrate a skill for public speaking and debating will help a potential pupil gain his place in chambers.
Potential pupils will apply through the Pupillage Gateway operated by the Bar Council. In November 2015 for the first time a Pupillage fair is to be held to provide students the opportunity to meet with chambers and other pupillage providers.
Pupillage lasts for 12 months and is formally divided into two parts. The ‘first six’, is considered the non-practising six months, and the ‘second six’, the period during which pupils may begin to carry out work of their own.
During the first six, pupils will be assigned a pupil supervisor – a barrister in the same set of chambers or organisation – who the pupil will shadow. The pupil will undertake supervised work, such as legal research and drafting court documents. The pupil will also accompany the pupil supervisor to court and conferences with clients. They must also complete an Advocacy Training Course. During the second six, pupils can take on some work of their own but will continue to be supervised. They must also complete a Practice Management course.
Barristers need to secure a tenancy for themselves to enable them to work as barristers once fully qualified. Tenancies are usually finalised during pupillage and performance is a major factor. Appraisal might be based simply on a pupil supervisor’s assessment of a pupil’s abilities, or the pupil might have to take part in a formal exercise. Some sets of chambers take on every pupil with a view to making them a tenant if they perform well. Competition for tenancies is fierce and it is not uncommon for new barristers to take a third six-month pupillage (which is over and beyond what they need to do to qualify), as a method of getting their foot in the door so to speak, and stay on in order to secure a tenancy.
A tenancy enables a barrister to work from offices which are known as chambers which are shared with other barristers. There are a number of benefits to sharing chambers not least being that collectively they share overheads according to their seniority and contribute to the costs and expenses of running the chambers according to an agreement. This means that individual barristers are free to pursue their own areas of specialization but are able to share running costs.
Barristers are usually self-employed and their work is managed by a clerk. The clerk will keep a diary of dates when the barrister is available for court appearances and will negotiate fees and cases according to the requirements of the client and such matters as the barristers experience as an advocate and area of the law involved. Many barristers chambers now have their own website detailing the profiles of the barristers sharing chambers. Such profiles are organized according to seniority (when the barrister was called to the bar) and provide information about court cases and disputes with which they have been involved and the area of law that they specialize in. The role of a barrister is to interpret their client's perceptions and views into legal arguments which obtain the best outcome for their client.
Advocacy for many barristers will become a key part of the work they do. Advocacy work means that they will be retained by a client to present their case in court on their behalf. This includes criminal as well as civil cases although it is usual for barristers to concentrate on one area of the law – either criminal or civil. Advocacy includes presenting legal arguments to the judge and the examination and cross examination of witnesses. It requires experience and skill if it is to be carried out effectively. Although many will concentrate on advocacy they will also write opinions, give advice and draft documents for use in court.
The work of the courts varies and so does the work of an advocate and this depends upon the courts in which they appear. Advocacy for some may include regular appearances in the superior courts (Crown Courts, High Court, Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court). It is probably fair to say that the work of these courts including the cases listed for hearing in them are likely to be more complex or involved than cases in the lower courts such as the Magistrates' courts and County Courts. This seems to be borne out when it comes to the qualification and rights of audience needed when applying to join the judiciary.
Not all barristers are known for their advocacy skills – some specialize in giving legal advice in specific areas of the law and become experts in their field e.g. human rights, tax, immigration, planning and trusts. In these circumstances specialist barristers will provide written advice in the form of opinions as required by instructing solicitors.
Barristers are now permitted direct access to clients on the basis that the old system of requiring instructions to be passed through a solicitor effectively meant that two forms of legal representative were required and that this added to the expense. Such direct access is however limited to civil cases. Many barristers' chambers now have their own website detailing the profiles of the barristers sharing chambers. Such profiles are organized according to seniority (when the barrister was called to the bar), and provide information about court cases and disputes with which they have been involved and the area of law that they specialize in.
It should not be forgotten that some barristers are employed by such organisations as the Crown Prosecution Service, government departments, local authorities and businesses. Such barristers have similar rights of audience as self-employed barristers. The Crown Prosecution Service prosecutes criminal cases on behalf of the state and such barristers will usually find themselves dealing with criminal work and appearances in the Magistrates Courts and the Crown Courts at hearings of first instance and appeal, with appeal hearing in the High Court and Court of Appeal.
Senior barristers are known as Queen's Counsel (QC) and such appointments is a matter of status and a recognition of a barrister's expertise in a certain area of the law. Barristers need to have been qualified for 10 years before they are entitled to apply to become a QC. Appointments are otherwise known as 'taking silk' which a reference to the fact that their appointment entitles them to wear silk robes as opposed to cotton. An independent selection panel now oversees appointments and interviews candidates. The panel then makes its recommendations to the Lord Chancellor.
Such appointments are seen as extremely significant and can have a tremendous effect upon a barristers career and the nature and importance of cases which are referred to them along with the level of fees which they may charge.
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