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Bar Standards Board 'Failing' Students

A gentleman sat at desk in front of silver laptop with mobile phone next to it and some papers with a pen on top. there is a window in the background with a single grey curtain draped back. The gentleman is dark haired wearing a denim long sleeved shirt with the sleeved rolled up mid forearm.
Stressed Person Sitting at Home Exams

Students sitting this year’s bar exams have alleged they are being discriminated against as reasonable adjustments and basic rights have not been met.

Due to the Covid pandemic, the exams for aspiring barristers, which were due to be sat in April were postponed and sat throughout August. However things did not go to plan with many students on the verge of a breakdown.

Many students sat their exams at home via ‘remote proctoring’. This means sitting in front of a computer for three hours, sometimes more, at a time without moving. Moving away from the situated camera would render the exam a failure. Students complained though that despite being at their computers on time, some had up to an hours wait before the exam started and those were the lucky ones. Some either didn’t even get the chance to sit their exams at all or had the exam crash half way through due to technical faults from the provider Pearson Vue.

For those who would be unable to sit their exam at home for various reasons, had to sit their exams at a test centre or were given the option to defer to December. This means some students would be unable to commence pupillages or employment as planned. Visas had also started to expire meaning overseas students were unable to sit the exam in the UK.

The Bar Standards Board released exam slots for those without reasonable adjustments first. This left those with additional requirements fighting for their spots as their local test centre was fully booked and they would have to travel miles away for exams that started as early as 8am in the morning. For individuals with disabilities this is an added stress and tiring in itself before the exams even start. For many this meant an overnight stay with an additional cost.

Further, students with reasonable adjustments were unable to book using the online booking system which is free. Instead they were directed to the Pearson Vue telephone booking line. A number of students allege this is a premium number and cost some in the region of £200. Also many students were then on hold for hours waiting to be served only to be hung up on.

Many students who were finally able to get through to someone were told that their reasonable adjustments could not be accommodated. This was despite on the 3rd July the BSB explicitly stating that “no student should be asked to waive a reasonable adjustment” [1] The reasonable adjustments for some were then confirmed in writing, to be told on arrival at the test centres that they had no record of them.

Days before exams were due to start students started receiving emails to say their exams have been cancelled with no reason or replacement option given. Some students did not receive emails but instead found out via social media from other students.

The next fight came when the country went into a heatwave. With some areas expecting heat of 37 degrees, it was communicated that unless reasonable adjustments were in place for drinks to be taken into the exams, students would be refused water. Some were eventually allowed water at their desks when sitting exams at home but for those in test centres, apparently had to endure hours with no access to water.

For those sitting at home and allowed to drink brought a fresh issue though of using the bathroom. Not allowed to leave their computer or move their face away from the screen, some students were forced to relieve themselves in bottles and glass under the table.

For students living abroad, they had an equally difficult time. One past OU student who is currently studying for her BPTC, Kathryn Lewis, experienced the difficulty of there not being a test centre in her current home country so had no other option but to sit her exam at home during the evening with her daughter asleep in bed. Sitting her first exam she got to question seven before the computer crashed.

Upon contacting Pearson Vue she was advised it could take up to five days for somebody to contact her. Kathryn said, “It’s insulting to keep being told that I can just take the exam in a test centre as it completely disregards my circumstances. The system requirements fails to take into account that not everyone lives in first world countries with fast internet…. The BSBs approach has been nothing short of sexist, racist and ablest”.

For some time now, the BSB have been trying to make the bar a more diverse and accessible organisation. The Students against the BSB Exam Regulations (SABER) issued an urgent action from the BSB to “remedy the adverse and discriminatory effects of the August exam regulations”[2]. SABER have also issued this statement “If access to the Bar, equality and welling at the Bar are to mean anything, a waiver must be implemented without delay”. [3]

A team of barristers have now met up with the BSB and have submitted a series of proposals on how to move forward and proceed with this year’s bar exams. There have been rumours that re-sits are due to happen this month. However no dates have yet to be given to students and with many starting jobs and new commitments there is fear this will be sprung upon them with no notice.

Students are unhappy that the BSB are seemingly passing the buck to Pearson Vue and have yet to apologise to students. They have advised if students have any issues or complaints then they should email in. The email address provided was for Pearson Vue.

The BSB are currently in talks in regards to the proposal and should be making a statement in the coming weeks on how they are moving forward. For some time now, the BSB have been trying to make the bar a more diverse and accessible organisation. An investigation into the failing of the exams is being called for by the Association of Disabled lawyers ‘and the impact of students. It should publish a public report on its findings’.[4]

The Bar Standards Board, who has a statutory obligation under the Equality Act 2010, has previously released a statement advising it is committed to delivering diversity and equality and fairness must be a standard principle within their establishment.

The Bar Standards Board have not yet advised whether or not they will be opening an investigation into this year bar exams. However it seems that the chaos is only just beginning with students who have enrolled on this year’s BPTC claiming they have not yet received timetables from providers or materials and the course has already started.

With students alleging they have been discriminated against and vowing not to back down, how long will students have to wait for answers from the BSB and how long can they continue to pass the blame?

Written By: Victoria-Jayne Scholes

News Editor

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