Flexibility in how professional standards are met should be the cornerstone of training.
Now that our consultation on the proposed competence statement for solicitors has closed, it is opportune to reflect not only on the competence statement itself, but also on its role in ensuring professional standards.
Of itself, the competence statement changes little. It provides certainty and clarity about what it means in practice to be a competent solicitor. Each individual will be able to reflect on their own continuing professional development, and be clear about what is required by their regulator alongside the particular knowledge or skills that their employer demands.
But our concern is not only about solicitors keeping skills and knowledge up to date: confidence about the competence of new solicitors is a core element of regulation.
We are already committed to reforming the training and qualification of solicitors. The Legal Education and Training Review criticised the current system as inflexible and not properly focused on ensuring standards. Others, both training providers and law firms, have reached the same view.
At present there are 104 qualifying law degree providers; 40 providers of the graduate diploma in law; 26 Legal Practice Course providers and 4,611 entities able to provide a recognised period of training (most commonly as a training contract). They teach different subjects and assess them in different ways. Does this system provide consistency? We simply cannot know with any degree of confidence.
With a legal profession that works in increasingly diverse and plural business models, alongside an increasingly wide range of other professions, and with an ever more divergent range of consumers from across the globe, it seems almost trite to say that qualification as a solicitor needs to be an unambiguous hallmark of competence.
But to reflect the reality of modern practice, it also needs to be flexible enough to accommodate routes to qualification that are suitable for particular market segments. Just as ownership rules have become more flexible, just as controls around multi-disciplinary practice have been liberalised, and just as we have delivered a range of simplification measures to free up solicitors and business, we need to modernise our education and training framework.
A competence statement can provide the foundation for tackling these issues and it seems likely that, subject to detailed consideration of consultation responses, it will be a core part of the future landscape. That leads us to ask other questions, but it does not presume any particular answer. Over the next year, we will be considering how best to assess against the competence statement. And beyond that we need to consider what pathways to qualification might be appropriate.
There is nothing automatic about the answers to these questions. We will listen to what solicitors at every stage of their career have to say; what long-established firms and new entrants want for their workforce; what consumers tell us they expect from solicitors; and what has worked well so far. We will look internationally at other legal regulators and learn similarly from other professions across England and Wales.
Options range from a detailed prescription of education and training inputs, to distributed forms of assessment, or to a centralised assessment. These can be combined in different ways. So how will we take such a decision? It is too early to make a definitive statement on criteria. We can draw on the Policy Statement we issued in May 2014. In that we committed to:
- remove unnecessary regulatory barriers and restrictions and enable increased competition, innovation and growth to better serve the consumers of legal services;
- reduce unnecessary regulatory burdens and cost on regulated firms; and
- ensure that regulation is properly targeted and proportionate for all solicitors and regulated businesses, particularly small businesses.
This makes clear that both confidence in professional standards and flexibility in how standards are reached are core criteria for choosing future assessment and training approaches.
At present we require most but not all solicitors to have a qualifying law degree or graduate diploma in law. The CILEx route offers a non-degree route and we do not require Qualified Lawyers Transfer Scheme candidates to have a degree. The new ‘equivalent means’ rules allow a candidate to qualify without a degree, LPC or training contract if they can show they reach the standard through another means.
And soon we will have legal apprenticeships that provide more flexibility. Many eminent lawyers and judges qualified through the old five-year articles.
We will need to consider if these increasingly flexible routes have caused a lowering of standards, a higher risk for consumers, or worse outcomes for the rule of law or proper administration of justice. If appropriately high standards of competence can be maintained through these different routes, why would we restrict their uptake or seek to control new flexible routes?
Flexibility may also bring lower costs for trainees and firms. Some would argue that flexibility can also support social mobility. For the SRA our objective must be a more proportionate regime that provides flexibility, while at the same time confidently ensuring appropriate standards of competence. If over the next year we can identify options that deliver this, then we will have a sound basis for consultation and reform.
Crispin Passmore is SRA executive director for policy