Why the increase in the minimum pupillage award will improve quality at the bar
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The Bar Standards Board (BSB) recently announced that the minimum salary paid to pupil barristers will be increased to align with the living wage. Further, it was confirmed that the minimum amount will be increased annually in line with Living Wage Foundation recommendations.
The minimum amount that chambers must currently pay their pupils is £12,000. This minimum rate has been the same since 2011, with no increase for inflation or for those working in London. Chambers can choose to pay more, but currently only two-thirds of sets pay pupils above the living wage. According to the new BSB policy statement, living wage rates are currently £17,212.50 in London and £14,765.63 elsewhere.
Because of the way in which pupillage awards are structured, some pupils prima facie being paid the current minimum award will actually earn more than £12,000 over the course of a year. The award consists of a monthly payment of £1,000 per month for the first six months. In the second six months, when pupils accept their own work, they are guaranteed £1,000 per month as a minimum income, but may earn more for the work that they do.
As I have covered on this blog before, this awards structure disproportionately affects those who undertake pupillage at sets that predominantly take on legally aided work. These are overwhelmingly the sets that offer the £12,000 pupillage award, even in London. This naturally puts many off applying to these sets or even to the bar at all. For those without savings or sufficiently high parental income, £12,000 is simply not enough to live on, even in areas where costs are low. After all, there must be a reason why the living wage is set at the level it is. Doing everything possible to encourage people from every monetary background to apply for the bar must be seen as a good thing.
The assurance that all pupil barristers will be paid in line with the living wage provides security to those entering their first year of self-employment. There will always be an element of uncertainty in a barrister’s earnings throughout their practice, which can deter excellent candidates who simply don’t want to take the risk when they know they can get a higher paying job elsewhere. It is also a very small starting step towards levelling the playing field slightly between those at (for example) criminal law sets and those starting in commercial law. It is hoped that this will be the first step towards encouraging those with talent and ambition to enter all areas of law.
There is some concern that the chambers which will have to increase their awards will suffer financially for doing so or be priced out of offering pupillages, and this news will almost certainly be met will concern by some managing committees that are struggling for funds. Pupillage numbers may dip in the long term, but the BSB has stated that it will monitor the impact of the increase, particularly in relation to the number of pupillages available. In addition, the rise is not astronomical (a few thousand pounds per pupil), but it is likely to make a significant difference to those embarking on their career at the bar.
Along with the announcement on the increase in pupil payments, the BSB also announced that there will be significant changes to the Bar Professional Training Course, especially to the way in which it is examined. The civil litigation and professional ethics exams will be split into two and one of the ethics exams will be taken during pupillage. Centralised exams will now also be pass or fail rather than graded.