The Solicitors Qualifying Examination proposed by the SRA is a slightly puzzling solution to the problem of the expensive and incoherent process of qualifying as a solicitor. While the Junior Lawyers Division has always supported the principle of centra-lised assessment to ensure consum-ers have confidence in solicitors, we still have concerns.
The SRA has cited the cost of qualifying and the ‘LPC gamble’ as a reason for the SQE. It says a prepara-tory course is not necessary, and that neither is a degree, though when they state that candidates must hold the equivalent of a degree, they do not say what they mean by ‘equivalent’.
Clearly this will save candidates a considerable sum. However, a theme throughout is that the SRA anticipates candidates will take a preparatory course before sitting the SQE exams. The JLD is concerned that by removing the requirement to undertake a preparatory course, the SRA is potentially creating a two-tier profession – those who have a preparatory course on their CV and those who do not. Moreover, the JLD expects many firms will continue to insist that trainees undertake an expensive preparatory course.
For those wishing to undertake a preparatory course, we do not know how much this will cost. The SRA has not said; training institutions will certainly have some idea.
How is the SRA intending candi-dates to fund courses? One of the aims of SQE was to ensure candi-dates did not have to land themselves with debts before they started their career. Their proposals seem to make this unlikely, especially with references to advocacy assessments only being ‘passable’ after a period of classroom-based learning.
Of course, this proposal does mean LPC providers are competing for candidates. The SRA believes market pressures will drive down the cost of a preparatory course, or that many providers will incorporate SQE prep into their existing qualifying law degree. This is a possibility. However, a number of LPC providers already offer a course that allows you to go on and qualify as a solicitor. Unfortunately, despite the wide variety of LPC providers, this has done little to drive down the cost of the LPC.
Nor is the proposed ‘combined’ degree/SQE prep new. It is already possible for an institution to offer a combined LLB/LPC, but that has not really caught on. This pathway ensures students qualify for student finance and do not have to fork out for the additional LPC cost. What makes the SRA think there is going to be a sudden influx of universities offering a combined course if they have not done so already? The JLD accepts that it will be easier for students to compare the quality of teaching of preparatory courses if the candidates are sitting the same exam, which can only be positive.
In terms of the actual exams, we look forward to seeing sample papers. The JLD remains concerned about the use of multiple choice questions to enable a candidate to pass SQE 1. The public perception that a trainee solicitor, without a law degree, has passed a series of MCQs to then be sufficiently qualified to undertake client work has the poten-tial to reflect badly on the profession.
The JLD accepts that there should be occasions when someone without a law degree qualifies as a solicitor – a chartered legal executive, for example. However, the JLD does not believe the SRA should remove the requirement for candidates to hold a QLD as standard. Candidates who hold another degree and subse-quently take the SQE have limited background legal knowledge to apply to client matters.
CILEx requires candidates to learn academic law before qualifying; it is surprising the SRA does not consider this necessary. Further, the SRA is intent on making it clear that without a law degree it will take much longer to qualify – which will encourage people to obtain a degree.
Bryan Scant is chair of the Law Society Junior Lawyers Division