We’ve already touched on the history of barristers as a profession, but let’s look at that in more detail. As I said earlier, originally the leaders of the profession were the serjeants. The serjeants had their own inn, Serjeant’s Inn, and ranked higher than ordinary barristers. Judges were drawn from the ranks of serjeants. Over time, however, the serjeants declined and after the 1873 Act no more were appointed. The title survives only in the title of Common Serjeant of London, a senior judge at the Old Bailey.
Meanwhile, the offices of Attorney-General and Solicitor-General developed as the King’s representatives in the courts. Confusingly, in modern times these offices have almost always been held by barristers, not solicitors. With the development of the modern system of cabinet government, the Attorney-General and Solicitor-General became government ministers, and they still are today.
From the reign of Elizabeth I onwards, there was a body of barristers retained by the Crown called King’s Counsel. In 1603, James I appointed Francis Bacon as “one of our counsel learned in the law”. This was the origin of the modern rank of King’s Counsel, or KC.
Originally King’s Counsel were appointed to advise the King and his law officers. However, over time, it became a title of honour that was conferred on professionally eminent or politically influential barristers. Historically, King’s Counsel could not appear against the Crown except by special licence, but this rule was abolished in 1920. As most people know, we still have the title of King’s Counsel today.
Until relatively recently, it was the Lord Chancellor, a Cabinet minister, who appointed King’s Counsel after confidential consultation with senior judges and senior barristers. The process was completely lacking in transparency, like the old judicial appointments process. However, in 2005 an independent appointments panel was introduced and the process today is much more transparent and less political.
The training of barristers has changed significantly over the centuries. Historically, the Inns of Court were responsible. Until the 18th century, the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge did not teach English common law; they taught only civil law, that is Roman law.
Barristers received their legal training at the inns, where they observed proceedings in court and took notes, practised in moots and, by the 15th and 16th centuries, attended readings and lectures. However, by the 17th century this system of legal education had decayed, and all students had to do to be called to the Bar was to eat the required number of dinners at their Inn of Court.
The 19th century saw significant improvements. A parliamentary select committee in 1846 harshly criticised the system of legal education. The four inns created the Council of Legal Education in the 1850s, and in 1872 it became compulsory for an examination to be passed before Call to the Bar.
English law degrees were established at the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge and Durham in the 1850s, and later in the 19th century the new civic universities also began to offer law degrees. In 1959 it became compulsory to complete a period of 12 months’ pupillage in chambers after Call to the Bar, and from 1965 pupils were prohibited from taking cases during their first six months of practice. There were further changes in the late 20th century. The Bar first required barristers to have a university degree in 1975. In 1967 the Inns of Court established the Inns of Court School of Law, with a permanent teaching staff.
In 1989 the Bar Finals, the required examinations for Call to the Bar, were replaced with the Bar Vocational Course (BVC). The Inns of Court School of Law had a monopoly on the BVC until 1997, when it was opened up to universities. The BVC has since been renamed the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC).
It’s important to understand that there has historically been a strong class divide between barristers on the one hand, and attorneys and solicitors on the other.
Due to the expense of education at the Inns of Court, barristers were generally drawn from wealthier families and were of higher social status, while attorneys and solicitors were of lower social status. The barristers themselves looked down on attorneys and solicitors.
In 1614 the Benchers of the Inns of Court described attorneys and solicitors as “ministerial persons of an inferior nature”. In 1666 they were described, even more harshly, as “immaterial persons of an inferior nature”. This snobbery remained the case two centuries later. In the debate in Parliament on the County Courts Act 1846, which allowed attorneys a right of audience in the county courts, the Attorney-General said the following in opposing the Bill:
“…the business of the advocate in all our courts, superior or inferior, should be conducted by men of trained education as advocates, of established position as gentlemen, as men of honour. …. if any monopoly at all were allowed to exist, it would surely be better to place it in the hands of a highly-educated class of men, rather than in those of an inferior class.”
That tells you a great deal about the prevailing attitude of barristers towards attorneys and solicitors in the 19th century. Of course, this is not to deny that some attorneys achieved wealth, fame and distinction or that some barristers made little money. The operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan are an interesting insight into the legal profession of the 19th century, since Gilbert himself was a barrister who had been unsuccessful in the profession.
In Trial by Jury, the judge sings about his time as an impoverished young barrister who did not get sufficient work until he promised to marry the daughter of a rich attorney. He sings, “I grew tired of third-class journeys and dinners of bread and water…” Conversely, in HMS Pinafore, Sir Joseph Porter sings about his own rise from office-boy to an attorney’s firm, to junior clerk, to articled clerk, to partner and ultimately to Member of Parliament and First Lord of the Admiralty.
But the structure of the profession of the Bar, where barristers had to pay their own way until they could attract sufficient work to make money, typically meant that the Bar was closed to people who were not from moneyed backgrounds. To an extent, this problem survived into modern times. When I came to the Bar, it was still the case that many pupil barristers were unpaid during their training as was I.
In Edmonds v Lawson  QB 501 an unpaid pupil barrister sued, claiming she was a worker who was entitled to the minimum wage. She won at first instance but lost in the Court of Appeal. Nowadays, chambers are required to pay their pupils but this rule was introduced only in 2003. And it remains the case that many barristers who do primarily legal aid work suffer financial hardship in their early years of practice and need financial help from their family. This continues to make the Bar less accessible to people from poorer backgrounds.
And although the class divide between barristers and solicitors is much less strong today, some vestiges of it remain. In my experience, the title of barrister still attracts a certain amount of social distinction and deference. And the Bar is still very much part of the establishment. It maintains much of its traditional pomp and ceremony, from wearing wigs and gowns to eating dinners at the inns.
Another important factor in the prestige of barristers is that traditionally, appointments to the senior judiciary – the High Court, the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court – have been reserved for barristers. This is no longer the case and it is now possible for solicitors to be appointed to the senior judiciary. But overwhelmingly, most senior judges still come from the Bar.
Finally, let’s look at who regulates barristers. The four Inns of Court, as the professional societies for barristers, survive to the present day. Everyone who wants to be called to the Bar still has to join an Inn of Court first.
In 1895 the General Council of the Bar, or Bar Council, was created as an overarching professional body for the Bar. The inns and the Bar Council regulated barristers until 2006, when the Bar Standards Board was created as a separate regulatory body. Technically speaking, the Bar Standards Board is a committee of the Bar Council, but it operates autonomously in regulating barristers. ■
Next week: The advantages of a split profession – and the counter-arguments
Professor Leslie Thomas KC is a lecturer at Gresham College in central London