The Bar Association will launch a consultation in about two months on a proposal to require trainee barristers to pass a series of tests before they qualify to practise on their own, the association's chairman says.
Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung SC said the move was aimed at strengthening quality-monitoring of barristers, whose numbers have grown from 683 in 1998 to 1,026.
The focus of the Bar was on the quality rather than quantity of barristers, he said.
Under the existing system, holders of a bachelor's degree in law and postgraduate certificate in laws (PCLL) must work as pupils under a veteran barrister for a year before being called to the Bar. During their pupillage, they are required to undertake seminars and workshops on advocacy skills, legal document drafting and case analysis.
'The current practice is that as long as you have taken all the courses and complete the course work, you will accumulate enough points to satisfy the Bar admission requirement. It does not matter if your course performance is appalling,' Mr Yuen said.
He said before he took up chairmanship of the Bar last year, the council had already reached a consensus that it was, in principle, desirable to introduce an assessment mechanism for trainee barristers. The council had originally considered introducing a compulsory exam at the end of the pupillage year.
'Following a year of formal and informal consultation with the stakeholders, we found that many people seem to be scared of the concept of an 'exit exam'. The idea of continuous assessments over the pupillage year was more palatable to them,' Mr Yuen said.
Pupils must pass all the tests to join the Bar but would be allowed to re-sit if they failed any.
Mr Yuen said opponents of the proposal included some veteran counsel and those holding a 'conspiratory theory' that the assessment was a means to restrict entry to the Bar. 'But there are also many who believe that, under today's standards, there is a lack of an objective quality assurance mechanism for new barristers,' he said.
The final decision would depend on the outcome of the consultation, he said, adding that finding the resources to implement the proposal would be a challenge.
At the World Bar Conference in Hong Kong in 2006, Mr Yuen said Bar leaders from each jurisdiction were trying to come up with a formal, effective assessment process to ensure the quality of their barristers.
There were concerns that the additional hurdle to the Bar might result in an increasing number of law graduates opting to become solicitors instead. Unlike barristers, solicitors have a guaranteed income.
Barrister Margaret Ng Ngoi-yee, who also heads the Legislative Council's legal panel, backed the proposal.
'In the future, solicitors who want to be an advocate in the higher courts will need to be assessed by a committee comprising legal professionals and representatives from other sectors,' she said.
'Without a proper quality assurance mechanism, barristers will only fall behind their counterparts.'