Revised proposals for solicitor education must be viewed in the context of changes to regulation.
The Solicitors Regulation Authority’s announcement last month that it will rethink plans to create a central ‘super-exam’ – the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) – is welcome given the profession’s concerns.
The SRA received an avalanche of criticism over plans to reform the qualification process, with more than 250 responses to the first of two consultations on proposals. The Law Society urges the profession to remain engaged in this ongoing discussion because the proposals still seek to fundamentally change the profession. Not only do we need to consider the areas which are key to qualification, it is also important that the whole approach to education and training is cohesive, ensuring that the best people want to join the profession irrespective of background but without lowering standards.
New proposals for change need to be viewed in the context of the government’s upcoming consultation on the separation of legal regulators from professional bodies, and the current Competition and Markets Authority study. At present, solicitors – among the most qualified and trained professionals – are, paradoxically, the most regulated. Other providers meanwhile, who may have no legal training, are not regulated. The Society believes there is an opportunity for better, simpler and more cost-effective regulation.
The profession has clearly indicated that the SRA’s plans do not meet their requirements for admission to the profession. The Law Society believes this includes maintaining a supervised and substantial period of workplace learning. There is a strong case for asserting that the profession should oversee this essential area in the future. If the solicitors’ profession is to survive and flourish, standards and entry into the profession should reside with the profession, ensuring junior solicitors are trained and achieve the standards required to meet client needs.
The Society is pleased that the SRA will maintain its commitment to a minimum period of workplace learning and this issue will be consulted on later in the year. It should be remembered that, compared with overseas jurisdictions, England and Wales already has a shorter period of formal education and training, and that the training period of two years is seen as shoring up this deficiency. If we are to ensure the reputation of the profession is maintained at home and abroad we have to ensure our training measures up.
The current regime is capable of adapting, as has been seen with both the ‘equivalent means’ provisions, enabling potential entrants to demonstrate they have met the requirements for entry through non-traditional pathways, and the recently approved apprenticeship route. The legal education and training system in England and Wales is highly regarded internationally, particularly the training contract.
Recent research into global competitiveness showed that England and Wales is a jurisdiction of choice as a result of this training. Professional bodies understand that market confidence in their profession is premised on quality and standards, and they therefore make great efforts to defend that reputation.
Solicitors are proud of their profession and of the quality and rigour of the training required to qualify. It was notable that days before the SRA announced plans to rethink the SQE, Nicky Morgan, secretary of state for education, addressed the Commons about her plans for changing teacher accreditation and justified her proposals by explaining: ‘As in other mature professions like medicine and law – it will be for the teaching profession itself to decide when a teacher is ready to be accredited.’
We look forward to seeing a revised plan from the SRA when it publishes its next consultation later in the year. This will look in more detail at entry requirements and the assessment framework for the SQE, which many respondents to the last consultation requested, as well as work-based learning.
Jonathan Smithers is president of the Law Society