Call to the Bar

Call to the Bar is not only "graduation" upon completion of the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC); it is also an important stepping stone in a barrister's career. The Legal Services Act 2007 defines a barrister as "an individual who (a) has been called to the Bar by an Inn of Court, and (b) is not disbarred by order of an Inn of Court". Call is the conferral of the "Degree of the Utter Bar" and the title "Barrister". The degree is conferred on those who have completed the required academic, vocational and Inn's qualifying session stages of qualification, and who have satisfied the Inn that they are fit and proper persons to be called to the Bar.

The call ceremony at the Inner Temple is nowadays usually held in the historic setting of the Temple Church, built in the 12th century by the Knights Templar. While the organ plays, students process down the aisle, followed by the Masters of the Bench. During the ceremony, students are called to the Bar by one of the Masters of the Bench with the Treasurer awarding students their certificates in front of guests. Afterwards, there is a champagne reception with a live band and a chance for students and their guests to celebrate.



Originally published in the Inner Temple Yearbook 1996/1997

What is a barrister? It is customary to answer that question nowadays with a job description, but there is a distinction between practising as a barrister and being a barrister - that is, having the degree of barrister. The "utter bar" is noticed as a "degree" in the Education (Recognised Awards) Order 1988, but there is no statutory definition of it, nor is the constitution of the body which confers it laid down by any statute or charter; the nature of the degree is governed by tradition, custom and usage.

The word "barrister" has not yet been found before 1466, when it occurs in the Black Book of Lincoln's Inn, replacing the less euphonious earlier form "barer" (found in 1455). Doubtless the degrees of barrister and Bencher appeared in all four Inns of Court at around that period - a "barester" of the Inner Temple is mentioned in 1481. At first the ranks were only used within the Inns, and the rank of barrister was regarded as merely a step towards that of a Bencher; graduations at this first level were therefore not even recorded. In the second half of the 16th century, the titles of barrister and Bencher became better known to the public as indications of professional standing, and the grander form "barrister at law" came into use, perhaps imitating the forms of university degrees, or perhaps the ancient legal degree of serjeant at law.

The two degrees of barrister and Bencher were the two principal degrees of learning in the medieval Inns of Court, analogous to those of bachelor and master in the universities. Although the modern concept of graduation involves a ceremony, a medieval student graduated by taking an upward step (gradus) within the educational system: he became a bachelor by performing in a disputation, a master or doctor by commencing to lecture and presiding over disputations. He needed someone's permission to do these things, and that is where the ceremonies began, but no-one conferred the degree on him: he took the degree himself by performing the academical exercise.

The method of instruction and exercise in the medieval Inns was closely analogous to that in the universities. Elaborate lectures (called readings) were given on the statutes, and disputations (called moots) were arranged as oral pleading exercises of daunting complexity. For this purpose the Hall was arranged to resemble a court, with a Bench and a Bar. This is the Bar to which students are called: not the Bar of any court, but the Bar of the Inn. A medieval law student began his course of study by learning the forms of writs and pleading, by rote, and would be expected to recite writs and pleadings within the Bar at moots. Only after two or three years would he be judged ready to argue a moot at the Bar in Hall. When he did that, he became ipso facto an "utter barrister". (The epithet "utter" denoted that he now stood outside the Bar at moots, whereas students - "inner barristers" - sat inside the Bar as if they were court officials.)

After 10 years or so as an utter barrister, he might be chosen to deliver a reading. That made him a "reader". After reading, he sat on the Bench at moots, taking the part of a judge; once he did that, or even if he did it without having read, he became a Bencher. In each case the degree was taken by performing the exercise; the barrister made himself a Bencher by sitting on the Bench at a moot. What authority was required to take part in the crucial Bar moot was not at first written down, and it eventually became a matter of controversy.

In 1556 the Benchers complained that barristers were being called by the other barristers "contrary to the old and ancient order of this House", and ordered that in future "none shall come to the outer bar or be hereafter utter barristers in this company such as shall be called by the Bench only, and that from henceforth the Bench every year, or twice at their pleasure, shall call to the outer bar such and so many as they shall think meet and convenient, and that all those which shall hereafter be thus called shall come before the Bench at the board's end or elsewhere at the appointment of the Bench, there to understand of the ancient Bencher there present the duty of an utter barrister".

That order is in essentials still observed. But the older customs died hard. As late as 1563 it was complained that some students had made themselves barristers by thrusting themselves into moots without having been examined and called by the Bench. In declaring such informal graduations void, the Benchers were making the act of official selection - the "call" rather than the moot - the essential part of becoming a barrister. No-one in future, it was ordered, could become a barrister merely by mooting, either of their own presumption or by "calling or appointment of the utter barristers of this company", but only when they were "thereunto first called, examined and enabled by the consent of the whole Bench". On 9 February 1567, even stricter control was imposed by the order that "henceforth no one shall be called to the outer bar except only by Parliament, in the term time, and not otherwise". It was from this date that the Inner Temple began to register calls to the Bar in the acts of the Inn's Parliament; a more or less continuous record survives from 1567 to the present.

Call to the Bar, rather than performance of an exercise, had thus become the indispensable mark of graduation. In 1591, a barrister of the Inner Temple pleaded his degree in a King's Bench case by stating that he had been "called, chosen and assigned to the place and degree of an utter barrister". There was no need to mention a moot. Even after this time, newly called barristers were required to perform their Bar moots; but it was now a matter of discipline rather than the essential act of advancement. When the mooting exercises ceased to be real tests of ability, as a result of the breakdown of legal education during the Civil War in the 1640s, call came to be seen as the moment of graduation itself, just as the commencement ceremonies at the universities came to be seen as conferring degrees without more ado.

The ceremony has always been a simple one, and in 1664 the Benchers ordered that newly called barristers should not provide lavish entertainments for their friends with wine. The graduands come in humility, in their students' gowns, to be called in open Parliament and to understand from the Treasurer the duty of an utter barrister, in accordance with the order of 1556. So long as numbers permitted, all this was done "at the board's end" in Hall, but in recent years it has proved more convenient, when there are large numbers of graduands, to move the proceedings "elsewhere at the appointment of the Bench", and conduct the ceremony in the Temple Church.

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