In today’s Guardian, there was an article concerning the spiralling costs of qualifying as a Barrister. Admittedly, the eye-popping figure of £127,000, that was quoted from the new Chair of the Bar Council, is based on the most circuitous route to the Bar: 1) non-law degree in London; 2) GDL in London and 3) BPTC in London, plus living expenses during that time. Apparently, a similar path followed outside of London will set students back 111,000 GBP.
Astronomical sums, but for a Bangladeshi/Commonwealth lawyer, perhaps the most noteworthy figure is that of “£19,000” for the BPTC. (At least for the BPTC, UK, EU and non-EU students are on equal footing, as they have to pay the same fees. However, UK & EU students get to pursue the course part-time while non-EU students don’t, as a result of strict immigration rules.)
To elaborate a little on this, I did a quick search through the established BPTC institutions – that I have provided links to on the left sidebar – and found that for the 2016-2017 year, the full time BPTC tuition fees are £19,070/£15,680 at BPP (London/Rest of England and Wales), £16,060 at Cardiff, £18,000 at City Law School, £14,480 at Manchester Metropolitan University, £13,050 at Northumbria University, £14,100 at Nottingham Trent University, £19,040/£15,480 at the University of Law (London/Rest of England and Wales)and £13,795 at UWE-Bristol.
Looking at these figures, it seems that fees have gone up by roughly 30% since I did the BPTC in 2011-2012. This means a Bangladeshi student will have to pay somewhere between 14.5 lac BDT and 21.1 lac BDT as tuition and between 10 lac and 13 lac BDT as living expenses through the academic year (according to UK Visa & Immigration minimum requirements).
Many in England perceive the Bar to be an ‘elite’ profession, dominated by a moneyed Old Boys Network, but through Inn scholarships, institutional bursaries, pupillage top-up schemes and an increased percentage of women joining the Bar and being appointed QCs, the reality is gradually changing. (Though challenges do remain) But this shift is only happening in the UK.
For non-EU Bar aspirants, the financial barriers to entry are overwhelming. Only a privileged few can hope to study at one of the aforementioned institutions by paying full fees or benefiting from a partial fee reduction. Some might say – “So what? If they can’t afford it, they should study at their own Law Schools and get qualified there”.
The problem is, in countries like Bangladesh, the number of quality Law Schools can be counted on one hand. For a country of 162 million people, there simply aren’t enough seats to accommodate all deserving candidates. As a result, many choose alternate careers. At the same time, I believe there is a nascent demand for legal services that is not met, as there are disproportionately few lawyers compared to the size of the general population. How do we remedy this? How do we ensure a bright future for the next generation of lawyers?
Well, the ‘invisible hand’ has pointed to two options already. On the one hand we have affiliate, associate and registered centres of the University of London, BPP and Northumbria University in Bangladesh, which allows students to pursue UK LLB (Hons.) degrees at a fraction of the usual cost, without leaving their home town. However, it is widely assumed that students graduating from these programmes will eventually go on to pursue the BPTC in England. Thus, we come back to the aforementioned cost problem and its deterrent effect. Some meritorious students may try to become Advocates or in-house counsel, while others will leave the profession altogether.
On the other hand, a number of private universities have opened new law departments. While this is a positive development, as I feel that we should develop high-class, local law schools like India, but the problem is quality-management and regulatory oversight. In this case, I am not referring to academic output per se but rather to the variable standards of teaching at some of these institutions. Many law departments are understaffed, overly reliant on part-time lecturers and lack the quality controls and feedback loops needed to ensure high teaching performance.Thus, questions may arise as to the extent to which these LLB degrees are compliant with the requirements of the Advocateship examinations and the broader demands of a legal career. (See here for an example of a recent tussle between certain private university students and the UGC-Bar Council regarding the recognition of LLB degrees). Given that the tuition fees of private universities are not exactly cheap by Bangladeshi standards, students may legitimately question whether they should pursue such qualifications at all.
Till these issues are comprehensively addressed, aspiring Bangladeshi law students will have to choose between the spiralling costs of English law degrees and local law degrees that may not be recognised! A truly precarious position to be in.