Barristers outraged at BSB plan to force them to take Maths tests


Barristers on the Western Circuit, already annoyed at being made guinea pigs for the Bar Standards Board’s “Quality Assurance Scheme for Advocates” are alarmed that they have been singled out to participate in the first tranche of the BSB’s flagship “Numeracy and Statistics Initiative Scheme”.

Under the scheme, which will apply initially to criminal barristers called after 1995, barristers who wish to remain in practice will have to register with the BSB by 1st January 2015 specifying the level of accreditation that they wish to obtain.

Under the scheme – already and inevitably dubbed “Nasti” by its detractors – the level of accreditation required will depend upon the type of law that the barrister wishes to practise.

According to Vanessa Vipan, Professor of Computing and Applied Mathematics at Trinity College Cambridge, who has been personally appointed to oversee the scheme, the plan is to:

protect the public by ensuring that we weed out that small but dangerous minority of criminal lawyers who lack the basic mathematical skills necessary to function in a modern legal system.”

When I spoke to Vipan yesterday she was excited about her new role.

We see so many applications for mathematics in the criminal courts and sadly, far too many failures to understand even the most basic concepts. The assessment of DNA evidence for example, is routinely bungled because of trial counsel’s horrendous misunderstanding of the most straightforward statistical concepts. But beyond that, I would like to see mathematics integrated deep into the DNA of the court system itself.

Take the “burden of proof” said Vipan, visibly warming to her theme, “I know that it is at the moment considered sacrosanct but that is only because too few lawyers have a proper grasp of Bayesian probability concepts. Instead of applying a rigorous mathematical approach to guilt and innocence lawyers – and I don’t exempt our senior judges from this – have espoused a woolly, wordy concept of needing to be “sure beyond reasonable doubt.” That is quite meaningless in mathematical terms. Eventually I would like a legal system in which the degree of doubt acceptable for a conviction can be expressed by the simple formula G = B + (d x D) + (e + E) + (w + W) where G is the level of guilt required, B is the …”

I had to interrupt the Professor there because my eyelids were beginning to droop a little, and we moved onto how the scheme will actually work in practice.

There will be three levels.

Level 1

Cases in which mathematical ability of an exceptional level will be required. This includes frauds involving the alleged appropriation of at least £100,000 based upon the value of the property concerned at 2010 prices adjusted for inflation according to the Consumer Prices Index, and any sexual case in which disputed DNA evidence is responsible for at least 50% of the weight of the evidence. Candidates at this level will require mathematical ability of outstanding quality. They will be fluid and instinctive mathematicians entirely happy to discuss advanced mathematical concepts including the most esoteric elements of chaos and string theory. Barristers accredited at Level 1 will be entitled to cross-examine all scientific experts.

Level 2

Cases in which a high level of mathematical ability is required. Cases will include any fraud other than those classifed as level 1, and any case involving any scientific evidence of any sort. A sound knowledge and ability to apply both Bayesian probability theory and Kitzinger’s equilibrium proof is to be regarded as a minimum requirement to practise at this level. Barristers accredited at this level will be permitted to cross-examine prosecution experts but only to the extent of disputing their “expertise, qualifications and assumptions.”

Level 3

All other cases, including murders, rapes and terrorism offences not otherwise classified as level 1 or level 2. Candidates at this level will not be expected to demonstrate a mathematical aptitude beyond that required for a good A grade at A level. The exam will however be set at a higher level to enable a small number of Level 3 candidates to progress via a fast-track mechanism to Level 2. Although barristers accredited at this level will not be permitted to cross-examine scientific experts they may, subject to the trial judge’s discretion, call expert witnesses on matters “unlikely to be of significant importance in the overall determination of the case.

Registration for the NASTI accreditation scheme opens on 1st January 2015 and all candidates will be expected to have completed their formal examinations by February 29th 2015. Borderline candidates will undergo viva voce examinations in March and the results will be announced on or soon after April 1st 2015.

One resit will be permitted on a date to be announced in June 2015.

Any candidate who fails two examinations will be formally disbarred on or before July 31 2015.

Chris Grayling, the Minister of Justice whose birthday it is today, welcomed introduction of the NASTI accreditation scheme:

This innovative scheme has the potential to substantially reduce the number of barristers in practice thus making substantial savings in public money a real possibility.”

He made it clear, however, that he had no plans to introduce a similar scheme for the Ministry of Justice statisticians.

The Crown Prosecution Service will also remain exempt for the time being. According to Vipan her statistical analysis has shown that “there is absolutely no evidence of any lack of mathematical ability in prosecution lawyers.  This is something that applies only to the defence..”

Author: Matthew

I have been a barrister for over 25 years, specialising in crime. You may also have come across some of my articles I have written on legal issues for The Times, Standpoint, Daily Telegraph or Criminal Law & Justice Weekly

2 thoughts on “Barristers outraged at BSB plan to force them to take Maths tests”

  1. “This includes frauds involving the alleged appropriation of at least £100,000 ”

    Since when has the actual fraud of any amount depended on either higher mathematics or even the arithmetic required to total it up? Even in a complex carousel fraud where there’s a cut at each turn it isn’t that hard to add up the net amount.

    Surely what makes it a fraud is the contravention of the legal regulations that are supposed to govern the transactions and the way they should be recorded and accounted for. Those surely are legal and not mathematical matters.

    Now I’ve worked with numbers, statistics and scientific formulae for a large part of my life. And I do certainly think it would be a good thing if the general standard of numeracy in all professions and trades were higher. But the suggestion that a trained advocate can’t interpret the law without higher mathematical skills just because amounts of money are involved is, well, bollocks….

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.