Anger over suggestion formal dinners for Inns of Court pupils could be scrapped

Patrick Sawer

For centuries generations of Bar students have been dining at the hallowed Inns of Court alongside some of the most experienced lawyers in the country.

The age-old tradition has been regarded as a rite-of-passage, offering them the opportunity of discussing finer points of law or simply sharing the stresses of a day in court.

Now, however, the requirement for every student barrister to dine at their chosen Inn of Court may be jettisoned for being too “intimidating, elitist, male and white” for them to cope with.

The Bar Standards Board (BSB) has raised the prospect of scrapping the 12 qualifying sessions students are required to attend before they can be called to the Bar.

These include guest lectures, workshops, debate nights and, at the heart of the inn’s social life, the formal dining sessions.

The dining sessions are governed by a strict set of rules, including students not being allowed to leave their seats for the duration of the meal.

There are now fears the nature of the events might put off students from ethnic minority or working class backgrounds from trying to become barristers.

A consultation paper issued by the BSB to discuss which of the practices which regulate a student’s pupilage should be dispensed with states:

“Some students with less knowledge of the profession, particularly for those from BME and lower socio-economic backgrounds, may be more likely to feel intimidated by the environment as they may perceive the majority of the barristers attending are white, male and educated at elite institutions.”

The consultation paper acknowledges that dining sessions give students the opportunity to network with qualified barristers, an opportunity not otherwise available to students from poorer backgrounds.

But the BSB says it is concerned that many prospective students may be put off by the cost of attending dining and other qualifying sessions.

Pupils are paid a minimum of £12,000 over a 12 month period and on top of that have to pay a £105 fee for admission to the Inn and £125 when called to the Bar, as well as the cost of each dining session.

However, senior barristers have already criticised any attempt to remove the requirement to attend a minimum number of dining sessions, saying they were essential for a student’s professional development.

John Cooper QC, of Bedford Row Chambers and a member of Middle Temple, said: “The Bar Standards Board has got to get a grip here. It’s ludicrous to say these dinners are intimidating. At every single dinner senior member of the profession make it their business to talk to students on a one to one basis without seniority. They enable student to meet senior members of the profession and network.”

Mr Cooper, who grew up in Wolverhampton and attended Regis Comprehensive School before studying law at Newcastle University, added: “I’m someone of a working class background. I was a comprehensive school lad with no lawyers in the family and I made my way important initial contacts by dining in the Inn.

“It was my way in, and without that I would have been in great difficulty developing my network in the profession.”

A spokesman for the BSB said: “We are reviewing all of our student training requirements and we have to ask if we’re being too restrictive. There are some people who believe passionately that dining helps integrate pupils and some who say it’s too stuffy and old fashioned.

“The board has a completely open mind. We are laying out the options and once we have heard people’s views it will come to a conclusion.”

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