Graduates from under-privileged backgrounds are to challenge the elitism of the barristers' profession, under plans outlined today.
Reforms aimed at challenging the dominance of the rich and privileged classes which are disproportionately represented among the membership of the Bar will tackle the decline in students from poorer backgrounds joining the profession.
They include financial assistance as well as measures to end the "intimidating environment" of the barristers' chambers which young lawyers must join if they want to train as advocates. The increasing cost of the Bar and a perception that it is run by a social elite has halted progress in the greater inclusion of barristers from different backgrounds.
A number of high-profile barristers, including the prime minister's wife, Cherie Booth QC, have warned that without changes, the Bar will continue to be dominated by white, middle-class male lawyers.
In a speech to the Social Mobility Foundation think tank in London this afternoon, Geoffrey Vos QC, Bar Council chairman, will say: "The Bar is a professional elite, by which I mean that the Bar's membership includes the best-quality lawyers practising advocacy and offering specialist legal advice in many specialist areas. That kind of elitism is meritocratic, and hence desirable."
"Unfortunately, however, the elitism which fosters the high-quality services that the Bar stands for has also encouraged another form of elitism. That is elitism in the sense of exclusivity, exclusion, and in the creation of a profession which is barely accessible to equally talented people from less privileged backgrounds."
Last month, Mr Vos warned that the future of the barristers' profession was threatened by an over-emphasis on posh accents and public school education. Mr Vos said then that people from ordinary backgrounds were often overlooked in favour of those who were from a "snobbyGetWord("snobby");" background. People from a privileged background were sometimes recruited even though they were not up to the job intellectually, he added.
In his speech today, Mr Vos will outline the "barriers to entry" to a career at the Bar and some of the ways in which these may be overcome.
The Bar Council has asked the law lord, Lord Neuberger of Abbotsbury, to examine how these barriers can be overcome, and he will publish his interim report and consultation paper before Easter. He is expected to propose a placement programme to enable gifted children from state schools to learn about the Bar, the courts and barristers at first hand.
The Bar Council is also working towards putting together a new package of bank loans on favourable terms to allow young, aspiring barristers from poorer backgrounds to finance the Bar vocational course year and then have the financial ability to establish themselves in practice before they need to repay.
These loans would be available alongside the Inns of Court's scholarship and awards programmes. Mr Vos will say today: "I passionately believe that the professions in general, and the Bar in particular, must be accessible to the most able candidates from any background, whatever their race, gender, or socio-economic group.
"The Bar has done well in attracting good proportions of women and racial minorities and we must be as positive in attracting people from all socio-economic backgrounds."