There is much to be welcomed in the SRA’s second consultation on reforms to the qualification process.
Legal education and training are back in the news again this month with the publication of the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s second consultation on proposals to reform the qualification process.
The controversial issue of a central examination for all would-be solicitors was first proposed in late 2015 when the regulator said its Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) would open up more flexible routes into the profession.
We raised concerns about the assumptions underpinning the proposal. The SRA acknowledged that its ambition to open up routes to a career as a solicitor was contingent on courses that were cheaper and more flexible.
The SRA’s initial consultation triggered a strong reaction from the Law Society and the profession.
This resulted in the SRA going back to the drawing board and re-emerging some months later with a revised set of proposals which seem greatly improved.
We are pleased that our extensive campaign led to this change of heart.
The Society supports centralised assessment – provided the level is set appropriately and does not result in a dilution of standards.
At the moment this is achieved by taking a degree-level qualification, followed by the Legal Practice Course, and then a two-year period of work-based learning, at the end of which the employer will sign off if the applicant’s work has proved satisfactory.
This system has led some to criticise the lack of consistent standards throughout the process and, particularly, at the point of entry to the profession.
We support the need for a diverse profession, one which enables students from all walks of life to enter it and which has strong and consistent qualification standards.
We also support an assessment which would give clearer evidence that the applicant has the required knowledge and skills prior to qualification.
However, from the outset we insisted that proposals arising from the SRA’s plans to create a central ‘super-exam’ – the SQE – must be fit for purpose, workable and to the benefit of the profession.
A central feature of the first consultation was the distinct lack of detail on the proposed assessments. It was this which frustrated stakeholders and unleashed an avalanche of criticism, with the regulator receiving an unprecedented number of responses to its first consultation.
The second consultation document addresses in part our calls for more information on the assessments, including which topics candidates should be tested on.
It looks in greater detail at entry requirements for the SQE and we are pleased that the strong arguments by the Society, practitioners and other stakeholders on the first consultation have been taken on board in the substantially revised proposals.
The key points put forward by the Law Society were the inclusion of a degree-level qualification and two years of work-based training. Both have now been included in the new proposals.
We believe that a degree-level qualification is essential, as academic rigour underpins the commercial success of the profession.
It is evident that in the period up to and beyond Brexit, standards for the profession must not be diminished in a way that would damage the standing of solicitors at home and abroad.
The Society would therefore like to see the solicitor profession retain a requirement for a ‘degree-level’ qualification, whether through a university education or one of the alternative routes now available.
The SRA has also stated that it is supportive of retaining the work-based training in a substantial form. The Society strongly supports this position because the substantial period of training is one of the quality markers of our education and training system, which is recognised and respected internationally.
We are also in favour of a system for applicants to show that they satisfy the SRA’s requirements for entry in more flexible ways than the traditional ‘training contract’.
That is why we argued for clear pathways to entering the profession – important from a widening access perspective, especially for those who cannot access members of the profession for advice.
Encouraging people from diverse backgrounds to become solicitors is a priority for the Law Society and we would not like to see this undermined by the SRA.
The SRA has accepted it needs to provide a toolkit explaining the options for entering the profession to address this point and has set out ‘exemplar routes’.
Finally, we felt that the assessments, as proposed, had to be pass/ fail and that grading was contrary to the design of the assessments – this has also been taken on board. It is also good to see that a time limit has been introduced for the completion of the assessments, as well as limits on retakes for individual assessments, as suggested.
Assuming that what is set out above is designed and implemented in a practical and cost-effective way, we at the Society will feel that the SRA has made a valuable contribution to introducing more flexibility for those seeking to enter our profession, encouraging wider access and that this may lead to more diversity.
It seems there is much to be welcomed in this consultation, although of course we will be examining the proposals in full and submitting a response to this consultation.
Robert Bourns is president of the Law Society