Strong concerns remain about whether a centralised super-exam for aspiring solicitors will increase access to the profession - one of the new examination's chief selling points - it emerged today. 

The Solicitors Regulation Authority’s compliance officers’ conference in Birmingham, included an update on the solicitors qualifying exam (SQE), which is planned to be introduced in 2020. Asked for a show of hands on whether the proposals would be a ‘silver bullet’ for increasing diversity and social mobility within the profession only a quarter of the 1,400 delegates said they agreed.

Concerns highlighted during the session, which the SRA is yet to answer, include the cost of taking the exam and whether the benchmark for passing the exam could theoretically be raised in later years.

The conference heard from a panel of SRA executives and legal academics who said that they thought that the SQE provided a good basis for change.

Cordella Bart-Stewart, director of the Black Solicitors Network, cited a retention issue among disadvantaged groups at university. She added that around a third of law students are from a BAME background but that less than a third of those will get a training contract. The format of the SQE, which offers a different path to qualification, could give a good alternative for those people who decide university is not for them,’ she said.

Ryan Murphy, dean at Aston Law School, said he is concerned that teaching institutions may decide to offer emergency cramming sessions for the part one of the SQE, which ‘may only be taken up by those who can afford it’.

The SQE will consist of two parts. Part one will be a computer-based assessment which will include multiple choice questions while part two will test practical legal skills and be taken after a period of work-based training.

Crispin Passmore, executive director for policy at the SRA, said creating a centralised exam where everyone has the same qualification from the same assessor would create a fairer playing field for recruiters to choose candidates from.

Passmore said that although the old format of taking a degree or an LPC will be phased out as of the 2019/2020 academic year, students would still have until 2031to complete the course.