All trainee solicitors will have to sit a centralised exam to ensure they reach the same ‘high standard’ of competence, under proposals published by the Solicitors Regulation Authority. 

The SRA said the new Solicitors Qualifying Exam would ensure that standards are consistent across the profession. All trainee solicitors, regardless of training route, will need to take it in order to qualify. The SRA hopes the exam will help facilitate more flexible routes to qualification.

The regulator said that as more pathways open up, it is more important to ensure standards are consistent. 

‘With 104 institutions offering qualifying law degrees, 33 offering the GDL, 26 offering the LPC and over 2,000 firms offering traineeships, the lack of common basis for assessing the quality of output from these bodies, or at the end of the training contract, is a cause of increasing concern.’

The regulator added: ‘We are very conscious that the process for qualification as a solicitor is key to safeguarding competence and quality. Great care must be taken to ensure that any changes support and strengthen this. We are also aware of the dangers of complacency and must take action where there is evidence that change is needed.’ 

The exam will test students based on the statement of competence the SRA drew up earlier this year. A two-part test will examine both a student's legal knowledge and their practical skills. 

The second assessment will be set at the level trainee solicitors reach at point of qualification. Both components will be equally weighted and must be passed before qualification. 

The regulator said it is likely that some form of work-based training will still be required before qualification. But it will continue to consider whether this approach remains appropriate as this can act as a ‘significant barrier’ for some.

A consultation on the proposals runs until 4 March. Depending on the outcome, a second consultation will take place in 2016. The exam would be available in autumn 2018 at the earliest.

Law schools are among likely opponents of the proposals. Helen Hudson, head of vocational programmes at Nottingham Law School, said: ‘If the SRA moves to a centralised assessment at the point of qualification, where does this leave us? The next phase of consultation is likely to centre around the abolition of prescribed routes to qualification which may well leave students and employers at sea.

'Nottingham Law School supports widening access to the profession, but on the basis that intellectual rigour and discipline to entry is maintained. The fear is that SRA’s current approach is likely to negatively impact on widening access.’