Dining in hall — tradition or torment?

UPDATE: this post has now been added to the ICLR blog, where further comments will be added.

Paul Magrath
3 min readOct 13, 2017

A debate has been raging on Twitter about dining in hall in the Inns of Court. It’s a tradition that goes back centuries, but in recent years the requirement to complete a certain number of dinners to qualify as a barrister has grown less and less significant. The question is, should they be abandoned altogether as a qualifying step?

Dinners are formal(ish): you need to wear a business suit or office attire and on top of that a gown (usually loaned by the Inn, unless you have your own already). You sit in a “mess” of four, but on long tables and sometimes benches, so it’s all a bit Hogwarty. There’s no sorting hat, but of course by the time you get to your hall to dine you will have been sorted into one of the four inns of court (“Inner for the rich, Middle for the poor, Lincoln’s for the scholar, Gray’s for the bore” — as the old rhyme had it).

There are certain other formalities. You can’t talk to anyone outside your own mess during the meal. You can’t leave hall for a fag or a pee until after the meal: the signal for permission to do so comes after the royal toast. You need to eat proper food off a plate with a knife and fork. And there’s that itchy gown over your shoulders all the time. In some Inns, you can be publicly challenged, and have to perform some penalty, such as standing up and singing a silly song, if you make a mistake in the rules, like talking to your neighbour who isn’t in your mess. So it’s all a bit like being at a boarding school, which is exactly where a lot of barristers used to come from in the old days when these traditions were considered a jolly good thing. The fact is, many of today’s pupils don’t have that experience, and find the whole business either ridiculous or scary, or possibly both.

But others, including many who did not have the benefit or burden of a public school education, think it is rather wonderful and fun, and a good way to make friends and learn about life at the Bar.

The reason this has come up now is that the Bar Standards Board, which regulates barristers, has launched a consultation this month, on the future role of the Inns of Court in the training and qualification of barristers. It seems to be part of a turf war, in which the Inns are also planning to provide a BPTC course in competition with commercial providers. (The Bar Professional Training Course is currently something of a moneyspinner, prompting complaints that “many are called but few get pupillage” — lots pay the high fees for the course on the promise of a glittering career at the Bar which few in the end enjoy.)

No doubt this debate will run and run. For many of us who did it, dining in hall was a bit of a faff and a chore, but a good way to meet fellow students and often the prelude to a night in the pubs of Fleet Street and Holborn, where one found oneself “called to the bar” for many “refreshers” before somewhat “unbundled” returns.



Paul Magrath

I'm Head of Product Development and Online Content at ICLR - the leading supplier of law reports for England and Wales.