Barrister training under review

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 May, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 May, 2010, 12:00am

Aspiring barristers may soon face tougher assessments before they can practise, even as they confront a threat to an area they once monopolised - solicitors with the right to advocate in the higher courts.

The Hong Kong Bar Association has set up a 'special committee for pupillage reform' under the chairmanship of Clive Grossman.

The committee has the task of setting down consistent training procedures for aspiring barristers, which could also result in fewer but better barristers who are guaranteed to have met a formal standard.

It is expected to submit a report to the Bar Council by the middle of the year.

Aspiring barristers now go through a year of pupillage training with various pupil masters - practising barristers - for at least three months each before they can qualify to practise. But there are only general assessment requirements, such as the keeping of a log book signed by the pupil master, to show their work has met standards.

Earlier this year the legislature passed a law effectively allowing solicitors to apply for the right to advocate before judges in the High Court and up - traditionally the monopoly of barristers - putting a greater onus on barristers to prove their worth. The first batch of solicitor-advocates is expected to be assessed by the end of the year.

For solicitors to be granted such rights, their experience and competence will have to be scrutinised by an assessment board.

The chairman of the Bar Association, Russell Coleman, said their move was not a response to solicitors being allowed to apply for higher rights, but the review was timely because of this.

'The purpose is to assess whether or not appropriate training to an appropriate standard is being provided to the pupils ... and that the appropriate quality of pupils come out of the pupillage process,' he said.

Grossman said: 'This will be a good opportunity to hold ourselves out as the experts.'

Inevitably, the desire to provide the profession with a stamp of quality will mean screening out law students who are not up to scratch.

The profession of barrister is now seen as being increasingly polarised between the very best law students, who usually aspire to be barristers, and those students who are not good enough to obtain a training contract at a solicitor's firm.

Coleman acknowledged that when law firms tightened their budgets for training contracts, inevitably a proportion of law students entered pupillage due to circumstances more than commitment or aspiration.

'That is not to say these students are necessarily poor. But we should ensure that those who do go on to become barristers meet a certain standard of commitment and advocacy competency,' he said.

The special committee consists of about 10 members covering a range of experience. Grossman said it would look at issues such as the nature of training, length of pupillage, vetting of pupil masters, the relationship with university education, and a review of how the system was reformed in England.

In the legal community, various ideas have already been suggested, such as the introduction of an exit interview to assess advocacy ability, the vetting of barristers who can be pupil masters - to ensure that pupils accompany only those barristers who are committed to training - and the introduction of new examination standards during legal education.

Coleman said he looked forward to receiving the report and intended to act upon it. Whatever the final recommendations, he said the reforms should provide a consistent structure to the training of barristers, and an assessment of written and oral advocacy skills across a broad range of legal fields.

'Pupils are entitled to expect from pupil masters that the supervision and training they receive are of a high standard ... The profession and public are entitled to expect in return that pupils leave having achieved appropriate high standards,' he said.

Legal brief

As of December last year there were 1,093 practising barristers in Hong Kong

Of these, 1,008 are juniors, leaving this many senior counsel: 85