As Mr Foster seems to have stopped talking to me I thought I would move on to other matters. Obviously, if he contacts me again I will let you know.
There are some issues which arise from the whole OTC (Obvious and Tangible Cheating) saga.
Firstly, as I have already said, more needs to be done to assist students with things such as applications and CVs. That is not to say that students should be helped to write things such as letters and CVs. The Bar demands judgement as perhaps its primary quality and the selection of what you think we ought to know is quite properly viewed as a test. That is why having someone write your letter for you is wrong. But the Bar should offer more transparency. There is no reason, for example, why Chambers should not publish the qualities they are looking for, with a view to assisting applicants point out those qualities in applications. In terms of judicial appointments and silk this process goes under the dreadful title ‘competencies’. But the idea is a good one. I will deal with this in more detail in due course.
Secondly, a culture in which people really don’t see anything wrong in what OTC are doing is one which needs reform. That, I think has to start with educational establishments and it should take the form of a simple one strike and you’re out test. Cheating should be looked for, placed on the permanent record of the student and should be a required disclosure to Universities, post-graduate providers and Chambers. That does not need to equal expulsion. If there is some reason (incipient mental breakdown being a potential candidate) then the cheating might go unpunished – at least on the first occasion. But the proposition that OTC only offers help is bunk. Chambers should be asking applicants whether they have ever paid for such ‘help’. They should be kicking out anyone who cannot explain why, or who lies about the answer (at whatever stage they have reached). Chambers should also be reporting any pupil or tenant working for OTC to the BSB. The proposition that you can’t defeat cheating is both defeatist and self-defeating.
I extend this to the writing of essays – whether by way of ‘model’ answer or otherwise. The test is simple: if the teaching isn’t good enough at your institution then you should be able to recover the cost of your payment to OTC by way of legal action for breach of contract. If you wouldn’t sue then you shouldn’t use what you’ve bought. Try working harder.
Thirdly, the sponsorship scheme offered by the Inns would – if operated properly – make a real difference to those who feel that access to the profession is lacking. I am not criticising the Inns here, but the sponsorship programme needs to be extended widely (especially in the provinces, where many BVC students now study) and properly used by students. Your sponsor is the person who could review your CV, offer advice on specialism, given a realistic assessment of your chances of getting where you want to go and provide basic advice as to Chambers to aim for. Most of them are willing to do all that – but you have to ask. So, if you haven’t got a sponsor yet, nag your Inn for one and then make – and keep – contact.
Fourthly, students have to take responsibility for themselves. I found some of the comments on the posts dealing with this issue deeply dispiriting. Yes, the BVC costs a lot of money – and in my (now publicly stated) view, too much. Yes, I agree that the teaching there is not all it could be. Yes, some people (quite a lot of people) are chasing a job that they simply will not get because they are not equipped to do it. But that state of affairs – although depressing – is not a giant conspiracy. It is a result of supply exceeding demand. It is all too easy to blame the Bar for this, but I’m afraid that my reaction is – grow up. You are adults for crying out loud. No one is making you do the BVC. Wicked Barristers are not going round your Universities with lies about the easy pickings to be had at the Bar. Most are saying entirely the opposite. If you do not inform yourself of the reality and you cannot take an honest view of your own abilities then, I am afraid, the problem is yours. The information is out there – go and research it.
Two subsidiary points from that: firstly, there will still be some people who are unlucky. The only thing I can offer – cold comfort indeed – is that sometimes life is like that. One of my fellow students at the BVC used to say “life’s a bitch and then you die”. There will be some people who have what it takes, work hard, set realistic goals and still fail. Whether that puts you off is, again, down to you. There is no guarantee of success. Secondly, what OTC and the like offer is a way out of that prospective failure by making you look like what you are not. That’s why integrity dictates that you don’t take what they offer.
Fifthly, the Bar urgently needs to find a way of measuring progress and potential, rather than just the standard reached and potential. The proposition that people are academically complete at age 21 is ridiculous. It unfairly discriminates against people who went to poor schools, or who mature later, or who don’t work until they find something they are truly enthusiastic about. There is a real need for research about how to measure the comparative distance from Eton to Oxford and from City of Leeds School to John Moores University (examples only). That requires the Universities to be up front about what they expect from their students from year to year. I would make this a priority because it is the only way I can see to truly open access to the profession. We ‘know’ that Oxford is a better University than (say) Cantebury. Why should we not ‘know’ the (intellectual) distance any particular applicant has travelled to reach the University at which they study?