21 August 2019

Next steps for the regulatory supervision of legal education and professional standards: Bar Standards Board

Westminster Legal Policy Forum, 8 December 2015:Reforming the legal education and training framework: competency, diversity and innovation

Next steps for the regulatory supervision of legal education and professional standards: Bar Standards Board

Thank you to the Westminster Legal Policy Forum for inviting me to speak at this seminar.

I have been asked to speak on developments in the BSB's programme of reform to training regulation - Future Bar Training - and this is also a chance for me to give some context to the announcements that we made just over a week ago on changes to the current system.

We launched the Future Bar Training programme in October last year, with the intention of making a complete reassessment of preparations for a career at the bar, and the role that regulation plays. This morning, I would like to give you our perspective on this journey overall.

At the outset, we identified three principles that would guide our work - principles that reflect the themes of this event: competency, diversity and innovation. Three very big steps have been taken since we last spoke here, and the pathway to change is now clear before us.

1. The Professional Statement

At last year's event, we undertook to compile a Professional Statement: a benchmark describing the knowledge, skills, and characteristics that all newly qualified barristers should possess on their first day of practice. After a thorough-going process of consultation with the profession, with consumers and with many others, the Statement was published in October.

The first of the three significant steps we have taken.

For the first time, the Professional Statement has established a full picture of the professional characteristics of a barrister, constructed through a systematic process and involving today's practitioners. It reflects not just those distinctive technical requirements of a barrister; the Statement sets out the expectations of a barrister in their behaviour toward others, in the management of their professional affairs and in the wider standards that they set for themselves.

Having established what those characteristics should be, we are now working on the development of the Threshold Standards that more precisely define the level to which a newly qualified barrister must be able to perform.

Many Threshold Standards are to be found already, of course, in requirements that we already publish. They will be familiar. We will marshal these within the Professional Statement, where we can see good alignment. In other areas, we will need to define the standards afresh, and fill in gaps. A consultation will be published in the spring - setting out our draft Threshold Standards, and inviting thoughts on those where some further definition has been found necessary.

Underpinned by Threshold Standards, the Professional Statement will provide us with a clear point of reference, defining what our future training requirements should be designed to achieve - neither over-egging requirements that impose unnecessary cost and other barriers to access to the profession, nor understating the standards that must be considered a pre-requisite of every authorised barrister.

2. Continuing Professional Development

A second and important step that we have taken relates to CPD, where our course is now fully set.

A consultation on the future system of CPD closed this summer, and we are well prepared for launch of the scheme in January 2017. Alongside a detailed consultation, we have been running a pilot scheme throughout 2015, with a diverse group of barristers. We will have the opportunity to refine the system with this evidence in hand, early next year.

The new system of CPD places a greater responsibility upon barristers to attend to their self-development- it is self-motivated development that defines professionalism. But with responsibility comes new freedom - from the straitjacket of a system of hours, credits and other formal requirements that make such a system practical but can be demotivating, and which sits uncomfortably with the wealth of opportunities for learning that are available to barristers.

We appreciate the extent to which this change in approach leads to a new and unfamiliar relationship with regulation. No more prescriptive rules and sending in forms. It will take time to settle down. But it is an important step that will enable us to focus our attention where it's needed, and encourage practitioners to take advantage of new and interesting opportunities for their own development.

3. Pathways to qualification

The third important step that we have taken relates to the complex question of designing future pathways to qualification.

At the end of October, we gathered together the 66 responses to our formal consultation on the future of the academic and vocational stages of training, and pupillage. Many of them were substantial. The consultation followed months of workshops and meetings around the country. We have a rich body of evidence now, drawing on the wealth of experience of the bar, of training providers, and of the wider academic community. We have also taken steps to ensure that all this work is informed by a consumer perspective. In the New Year, we will publish a summary of all that we have learned from this process.

We have done more, though, than seek evidence. In the recent consultation, we set out the modern regulatory standards that we must meet, and by which we will assess the options that emerge. We also recalled the principles that inform our approach: emphasising [firstly] standards - and in particular, those standards that equip us best for the future - emphasising [secondly] flexibility - to encourage innovation and responsiveness to ever-changing needs, and emphasising [thirdly] accessibility to the profession for a diversity of candidates.

We also suggested options for some of the components of that future design.

Next spring, we will set out clear options for the future, and indicate our preferred way forward. During the course of the year, we plan to develop the detail, following up with a formal consultation on our preferred option. In September 2017, first transitional arrangements will fall into place for that cohort of candidates.

4. Continuous improvement

Whatever high-level framework for regulation might be set out next year, this process has highlighted many areas in which we know improvements can and should be made now. Ongoing improvements cannot be held back by long-term planning. We can see where changes can be made over the next couple of years, confident that they will not interfere with, and may positively facilitate each of the options that we might realistically consider.

Last week, we set out some of these changes in relation to the BPTC.

The publication of detailed statistics on the BPTC has grabbed the most attention. The statistics paint a rich picture of the changing profile of candidates for the bar, and of the diversity of training provision available. We think this information is a very important tool to support our regulation: promoting standards, and helping prospective students to make their own informed choices. Equally, it provides important benchmark information against which we might measure the success of changes that we introduce. It's a big step in transparency, too.

The BPTC Key Statistics publication covers the first three years from the introduction of centralised exams - in other words, including most recently those candidates who qualified in 2014. Since then, of course, another cohort has gone through the system and we will produce a new edition earlier in the calendar year, next year, to include them.

We have also announced a change in the format of the centralised examinations in Civil and Criminal Procedure, which will take effect for those sitting their examinations in the spring and summer of 2017. We have thought carefully about the place of the centralised exams in supporting our work to build consistency of standards - overall, these past three years have demonstrated the value of this approach. The revised format is expected to provide us with an even more robust and informative assessment tool, whilst making the system of centralised examination more manageable and adaptable for all concerned. We've an eye to the future, too, when new assessment tools might be needed.

We have a little more work to do over Christmas, before committing to changes to the centralised exam in Professional Ethics, but the timetable for implementation is expected to be the same.

Thirdly, we have announced a deferral of opening of the Bar Course Aptitude Test until at least March next year. Since its introduction in April 2013, we have obtained a wealth of information on its performance and some useful evidence of its correlation with progression to a good BPTC result and into the profession. The BCAT is an instrument that can be tuned: that is the nature of the work that is currently being carried out, and which has led to the deferral of opening of the test into 2016.

5. Conclusion

We have highlighted the momentum for change in bar training that is now firmly established, but it builds on a considerable degree of success in the past few years: in the teaching and assessment of skills, in providing a diversity of opportunity for training - across the country (so that you can study for the bar in Cardiff, Newcastle and Nottingham), and for people from different backgrounds. We have also seen great steps forward in setting consistent, credible and measurable standards.

Over the next twelve months, we will show how we intend to build on that progress, and there will be no lack of opportunities to contribute - in the development of Threshold Standards for the Professional Statement; in helping us to crystallise a preferred option for training pathways; and together with many others in this room, in establishing sound foundations for all those who aspire to a career in law.

Thank you.