The impact of COVID-19 on students

We are grateful to YLAL member, Rachel Kelly, for writing this original content piece.

COVID-19 has had a severe impact on life as we know it. This article will explore the effect on students. From bar exams crisis to the cancellation of placements and postponement of legal careers, COVID-19 has had drastic consequences on the access to the legal profession.

Bar Exams

The Bar Standards Board (BSB) used Pearson Vue OnVUE online proctoring solution to deliver bar exams safely and virtually to students at home. In June 2020, Students Against the BSB Exam Regulations (‘SABER’) wrote to the BSB voicing their concerns about a number of unfair and discriminatory features that the exam format would use, such as students being prohibited from using a toilet during the exam. Despite this, Oliver Hanner, director of regulatory operations at the BSB, stated that it would be for BPTC providers to contact students to discuss individual needs and have these implemented and these virtual exams went ahead in August 2020. For more information, see YLAL’s COVID-19 report on students.

Many students sitting these exams took to social media reporting ‘outrageous’ exam conditions. Many were forced to reschedule their exams because their individual needs could not be met. Difficulties that students reported include:

  • waiting a further hour before the start of a 3-hour exam due to technical issues;
  • not being allowed to use a toilet;
  • crashing systems; and
  • proctors accusing students of cheating if they looked away from their screen.

One student anonymously reported that they felt a more practical way of testing which replicated that of practice, and not an invasive exam that begun with the presumption of cheating, would have been a better way forward. As a result of such circumstances, many students have deferred their exams and have postponed their journey to the Bar.

The BSB recently issued a press release acknowledging these difficulties and discussing how it intended to resolve them. It included the following: ‘We intend to offer everyone who took a computer-based exam and experienced a technical failure that prevented them from accessing or completing their exam the chance to sit their exam again as a pen and paper exercise in a secure venue and as soon as possible. Special consideration will also be given to anyone who was booked to take a computer-based exam and whose reasonable adjustments were not delivered as booked’.

The full BSB press release is available here.

Aspiring lawyers generally

One further crisis affecting access to the legal profession is an increase in the number of work experience placements cancelled and young aspiring lawyers being made redundant due to the COVID-19 crisis. Students who may have had a mini pupillage planned for the summer have had their placements postponed or cancelled, which adversely may impact their pupillage applications that they will begin this winter. Many students obtained these placements through diversity schemes or long application processes and may not have the opportunity to complete them before the hard-hitting pupillage applications begin. Additionally, some students who have had a financial blow due to COVID-19 now face the barrier of being unable to fund travel and accommodation for placements and many students have expressed their desire to join the bar may no longer be possible for them. One student reported: ‘I have experienced delays in exams and a delay in my call date, which has resulted in my future being called into question. My personal finances have taken a massive hit. My mental health is my main concern.’

Despite the crisis, there are some positives. Mass Ndow-Njie, a newly-qualified barrister, created the charity ‘Bridging the Bar’ in February 2020, which aims to improve diversity and equality in the legal profession by providing legal opportunities to students from non-traditional backgrounds, such as through their flagship mini pupillage scheme which has partnerships with over 40 chambers.