The regulator for barristers in England and Wales has apologised “for the distress and inconvenience” caused to students trying to sit their exams online due to the pandemic.
Many candidates reported that they are being forced to retake tests after software created by exam board Pearson Vue struggled with technical problems.
Student barristers have branded the system, which does not allow them to take toilet breaks or break eye contact with the screen, “humiliating and degrading”.
On Monday, some students reported staring at a blank screen watching their allotted time tick by without the exam starting.
Others said the programme had frozen or caused their computer to crash.
Last week, student barristers shared images of urine-filled bottles they had been forced to use to avoid taking a toilet break.
One 24-year-old student in London spent two hours trying to start his civil litigation exam on Monday, and eventually had the whole thing cancelled.
He told the PA news agency that as far back as March, he and his classmates had urged the Bar Standards Board (BSB) not to use Pearson Vue because of its poor customer ratings.
“It was never about not wanting to take the exams or wanting exemptions. It was about fairness, parity and equality,” he said.
“Given what’s been going on, people are having to take exams in conditions that are humiliating and degrading, and that’s what’s not acceptable.”
Each year, around 1,500 students take the Bar Professional Training Course, and this year three out of their 12 assessments are being sat via Pearson Vue.
One 22-year-old student studying in Bristol said almost everyone on her course had had difficulty in taking an exam on Monday.
Last week, Pearson Vue had to reschedule another exam for her when its system crashed just minutes after she had signed in for the test.
She told PA: “I was all prepared and ready to go last Tuesday and then had more exams, so I had to scrap my revision for the other exams and revise for the same exam again.”
The system generates a unique test paper for each student based on a pool of questions, so unlike traditional exams it is possible to take the assessments at different times.
The student said: “In June, we as students wrote a letter to the BSB informing them Pearson Vue had 95% negative reviews on TrustPilot from people saying the same thing happened.”
The BSB said: “Our test delivery partner, Pearson Vue, experienced some delays today with the OnVue platform, which is being used to deliver the centralised assessments online as part of this year’s bar exams.
“We apologise for the distress and inconvenience that this may have caused.”
It said the majority of candidates had been able to complete the exam, adding: “We are examining options to ensure that candidates who experience any difficulty with online testing will get another opportunity to sit their exams as soon as possible before December.”
Pearson Vue has been approached for comment.
Last week, candidates were warned they could fail their two hour and 45 minute exam if they did not maintain eye contact with their laptop screen – prompting some to make alternative toilet arrangements.
Their exams coincided with the mini-heatwave which saw temperatures in some parts of the UK exceed 35C.
The BSB said students who opted to take the exams at home were provided with “straightforward guidance” making it clear they would not be allowed to leave their rooms to protect the integrity of the test.