The figures of pupillage vacancies this year again are extremely depressing and the competition even more intense. Yet the brightest and the best still brave the worst, inspired as we were by the prospects of the incredibly stimulating career of the bar at its best. But how can we improve their prospects of gaining a Pupillage where that is the prerequisite of practice?
Far better minds than mine are worrying about this issue and have been for years. You cannot compel chambers to finance that which they cannot afford, nowhere more so than in crime.
So in putting forward an old idea, I know that I am treading on very delicate ground. But better it be discussed than we do nothing.
I suggest an extension of the library concept, starting with a controlled experiment, which if it works, could be expanded nationwide. I emphasise that this could only work with the active support of the Bar Council and the selfless commitment of other barristers in other chambers, who like me are deeply troubled by the present position, where so many cannot even get a Pupillage interview, let alone a Pupillage.
A possible scenario would be as follows:
1. Library chambers would be the selection of say ten pupils to work in a law library under the supervision of two or so relatively recently retired members of the bar with one employed clerk.
2. That presupposes a maximum of two other rooms, one for the clerk, the other for conferences and pupil meetings.
3. Library chambers would have an understanding with a range of work suppliers including the CPS to provide a flow of small work.
4. Library chambers would work with a range of willing practitioners prepared to take pupils to court with, in some cases, their own pupils. Plainly such practitioners should be eligible to be pupil supervisors.
5. At the end of 12 months, the pupils can be considered as third six pupils in the existing rat race.
Now I am not completely stupid. I can see at once some of the obvious objections. This may well be seen as a second class alternative to conventional Pupillage. BUT better that than No Pupillage at all. Certainly at the end of 12 months, the prospects of being taken on as a third six may not be high. But there is the chance, the very half chance that drives on so many of our best to succeed.
But move on a year or two. Imagine that the library chambers began to gain a reputation, particularly because of the character and input of the retired members supervising it. Then a well run library chambers may be seen as a real alternative and not a poor cousin.
And who then will pay for these chambers?
A question that I can only answer in part. What would be needed is a business plan to cost buildings and staff and crucially whether the bar could fund such an experiment. How far could the income of ten or so pupils support such a project? All I can say is that there are far better financial figures who could seek to address those questions. Maybe this whole concept would have to be strongly subsidised. Maybe there is an opportunity for support outside the profession.
I know – it is an imperfect suggestion which needs considerable improvement in concept and detail. But if we cannot even open the door a little wider to some very able young barristers, we shall continue to carry a sense of shame.
Something must be done. Soon.
Please continue the debate and any other alternatives to increase pupillages on offer.
Nigel Pascoe QC