Robert Bourns, President of The Law Society

More information from the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) on their plans to reform how people can qualify as solicitors has prompted a string of questions from different parts of the profession.

The Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) is a competency-based examination offering different paths to qualifying and would replace the existing routes to becoming a solicitor.

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Robert Bourns

The rationale for the new system is that a lawyer’s competency is more important than the route they took to acquire it. As a result, the current requirement for a law degree or to take the Common Professional Examination (CPE) would be replaced by the SQE.

The SQE would test candidates for knowledge and skills, and the process would shift from course work at universities to learning through a variety of routes, such as apprenticeships or online courses.

The SQE’s emphasis on competency-based learning is intended to ensure new entrants to the profession have core abilities and a degree of practical experience.

Clearly, many aspiring solicitors will still opt for some form of conventional legal study, so it is unlikely the SQE will bring about an end to traditional legal education. Nonetheless, the aim is to create a process that will open up the profession to a more diverse range of candidates.

The Law Society strongly supports centralised assessment to ensure all solicitors meet consistently high standards. But the SRA needs to clarify a few things.

People considering a career as a solicitor, and those who may eventually hire them, need to be sure that the SQE will deliver training of a sufficient standard.

When constructing any form of assessment designed for a whole cohort of new entrants the SRA should keep in mind that, under the new process, aspiring solicitors will have followed different paths and experienced very different types of practice before admission.

The regulator must therefore ensure the finalised assessment model does not disadvantage any entrant.

One of our concerns is that these reforms may deliver people who are qualified as solicitors, but whose experience in training has not been relevant to the skills required in the workplace.

New assessment processes should only be introduced where they ensure the skills and knowledge required by the common standards are covered consistently for all new entrants.

The assessment system that the SRA introduces must also support learning and innovation in teaching, and reflect the reality of legal practice while being fair, transparent, rigorous and justifiable - and accommodating diversity.

We would also stress the importance of forward-planning. By this we mean the SRA must communicate its ideas in a timely manner. We would ask that they make clear - at least six months, and preferably a year in advance of the first tests - precisely what they expect of candidates, giving sufficient detail to allow both candidates and training providers to prepare themselves properly.

Beyond the issue of assessments, it’s also important to note that some of our member groups - such as the Lawyers with Disabilities Division - have particular concerns about the wider framework of the SQE. Students on the existing qualifications have access to Student Finance England (SFE) funding for disabled students. Non-award courses for the SRA’s proposed qualifications would not currently attract this funding.

We will continue to review details of the SQE as they emerge to ensure the reputation of the profession is protected. The success of these proposals will be judged on the quality of the candidates that emerge at the other end.

Robert Bourns is president of The Law Society