The BPTC: info and insight

A crucial step on the way to the Bar is the BPTC. Ian Fox, barrister and BPTC course leader at Nottingham Law School, explains what you can expect on the course that will transform you from theoretical student to practical would-be barrister.


The Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) is the compulsory, vocational stage of training for those intending to qualify as a barrister. Now in its seventh year, it is the successor to the Bar Vocational Course (BVC) and reflects a number of recommendations made by the BVC Working Group (chaired by Derek Wood QC), which reported to the Bar Standards Board (BSB) in July 2008.

By way of recent developments, and arising partly as a result of the Legal Education and Training Review, the BSB in February 2015 announced the Future Bar Training programme: “a programme of review and reform that will bring our training regulation up to date and assure high standards in barristers’ services for the future.” Against the background of a Professional Statement and a consultation exercise Future Routes to Authorisation, the indications are that there may be step changes to the BPTC from September 2018, with the possibility of minor changes from September 2017. How the course will change remains to be seen; however, prospective candidates intending to commence the BPTC in or after 2017 are advised to consult the BSB website regularly.

In respect of the BPTC, the BSB website currently states: “The BPTC is designed to ensure that students acquire the skills, knowledge of procedure and evidence, attitudes and competence to prepare them for the more specialised training of pupillage.”

The Bar Professional Training Course Handbook, published by the BSB and available as a download from their website (BPTC Handbook 2016), adds to this, stating that the BPTC “builds on knowledge of the key concepts and principles of public and private law learned during the academic stage. The course enables a student to develop an understanding of how such knowledge may be applied in practice.”

Given those statements it is, perhaps, not surprising that the BPTC is a practical course, with an emphasis on skills and skills-based training. It is also worth noting that providers will assume that students have a sound knowledge of 'undergraduate' law!

Course content and structure

The subjects studied on the BPTC currently comprise (i) compulsory subjects, and (ii) options. The compulsory subjects are further broken down into knowledge subjects and skills.

The knowledge subjects are:

  • civil litigation and civil evidence;
  • criminal litigation, criminal evidence and sentencing; and
  • professional ethics.

The skills are:

  • advocacy;
  • conference skills;
  • drafting;
  • opinion writing;
  • resolution of disputes out of court (RDOC), such as negotiation and mediation; and
  • the pervasive skills of legal research and case analysis (not assessed).

Options subjects will vary between providers; however, students are generally required to study two options, drawn from a minimum offering of six. The subjects tend to be specialist, for example, landlord and tenant, and employment.

Each provider is accredited to deliver the course by the BSB. Each course must adhere to the BPTC Handbook (above), which sets out a number of stipulations, including its minimum duration (30 weeks) and the maximum number of students permitted in 'small group sessions' (six for oral skills sessions otherwise, generally, 12). The BSB also specifies the indicative content/syllabus for each compulsory subject, together with intended learning outcomes, the minimum number of opportunities which must be provided to allow students to practise and receive feedback on the skills, and the assessment requirements for each subject.

Subject to those stipulations, each provider has a broad discretion as to how it chooses to deliver and structure its course and, indeed, the nature of any associated academic award. Nottingham Law School, for example, has re-badged its BPTC so that students have the opportunity to gain an LLM during the currency of the BPTC year, rather than as a later ‘top-up’; it also delivers the bulk of the compulsory subjects using seven core briefs (three civil, four criminal) which track the litigation process from pre-action requirements (civil) or arrest/charge (criminal) through to trial, appeal and enforcement (civil) and sentencing (criminal). Small group sessions are further designed so that the knowledge subjects and skills are taught in an integrated and developmental fashion.

Nottingham also chooses to deliver its options subjects after the compulsory subjects have concluded, rather than concurrent with them, as some providers do. Prospective students are advised to consult providers' websites/brochures to determine which course most appeals to them, while also having regard to such things as the BSB's Monitoring Visit Reports (published on the BSB website).

Assessment

Since advocacy is assessed three times, there are currently 12 assessments on the BPTC. From the academic year 2011-12, assessments in the knowledge subjects have been set and administered by the BSB, reflecting one of the fundamental recommendations of the BVC Working Group, above. The Litigation assessments comprise ‘single best answer’ questions (involving a more sophisticated type of multiple choice question), whilst the Professional Ethics assessment comprises short answer questions.

Of the remaining compulsory subjects, a further three are assessed by written examination (drafting, opinion writing and RDOC). Advocacy and conference skills are assessed orally, while options subjects are assessed via a skill, which may, of course, be written or oral.

For all assessments the minimum pass mark is 60%; assessments are generally staggered over the second and third terms.

Workload

We advise our students to treat the BPTC as the first year of their professional lives, rather than the last year of their student lives. The workload can be demanding given the duration of the course, the fact that students are generally learning subjects/skills that they have not encountered before and the number of assessments involved. (It is worth noting, here, that student surveys have tended to indicate that it is the amount of work that students find demanding, rather than the intellectual challenge of the work itself.)

The amount of class contact will vary between providers; however, in general terms, students should expect an average of 10-16 hours' contact time per week on full-time courses. The BPTC Handbook itself requires providers to demonstrate a minimum notional study time of 1,200 hours (to include scheduled teaching, preparation, revision and assessments). Based on a course of 30 weeks, this equates to an average of 40 hours per week (i.e. roughly equivalent to the average working week!). Many providers try to keep one day free of teaching (typically Friday) to allow for court visits, preparation, consolidation and Inns' events.

Students can expect the amount of work to vary from week to week, similarly class contact time. During feedback and assessment periods teaching will diminish, resulting in student queries as to why the workload is so inconsistent.  Generally, those periods are when tutors are working the hardest!

Other information

Those seeking entry to the BPTC are required to take and pass the Bar Course Aptitude Test (BCAT) which, again, was introduced in response to recommendations made by the BVC Working Group. The test was introduced in Spring 2013 and aims to ensure that only those with a realistic chance of passing are allowed to start the BPTC.  Administered by Pearson Vue and conducted online at its test centres, the BCAT currently comprises 60 questions which are designed to test inference, recognition of assumptions, deduction, interpretation and evaluation of arguments. Further information can be found on the BSB’s BCAT web page which also contains links to the BCAT Handbook, FAQs and a practice test.

For those who are some way off applying to study the BPTC, the Bar Council also has its own information on the steps involved in training, and a downloadable publication Your Career as a Barrister.   

Ian Fox is a barrister and BPTC course leader at Nottingham Law School.

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