'Radical’ reforms to open more diverse routes to becoming a solicitor, including through apprenticeships, are to be published by the Solicitors Regulation Authority.
Responding to the Legal Education and Training Review (LETR) published in June, the regulator’s chief executive Antony Townsend today announced plans to consult on the 'most far-reaching changes to legal education and training’ for over 40 years.
Townsend (pictured) set out proposals to move from an education and training system based on a ‘restricted set of activities and narrow routes to qualification’ to one where there is ‘greater variety, choice and flexibility’.
At the heart of the changes is the establishment of a competence framework specifying the 'knowledge, skill and attributes’ required on qualification.
Townsend said the SRA has begun ‘field work’ with a sample of firms, lawyers and consumers to produce that framework by the middle of next year.
He told the Westminster Legal Policy Forum: ‘A one-size-fits-all approach to qualifying as a solicitor, in a market where one size fits few, needs to be scrapped.’
To that end, the SRA wants to amend regulation to enable a diversity of routes to qualification into the profession. The regulator will leave it to educational providers and employers to come up with the routes that achieve the ‘day-one’ outcomes set by the SRA.
Apprenticeships, he said, could be one route, but there are many other possibilities.
The SRA plans to reform the continuing professional development requirement, which Townsend said ‘must go’ because it is failing solicitors and firms . A ‘tick box’ system based on hours and points, he said, does little to ensure lawyers’ competence.
He said a review of CPD is underway and the SRA will consult on continuing competence by January.
Townsend promised that a ‘bonfire’ of education and training regulations will be underway by the end of the year, to strip away layers of regulation which he said ‘neither assure nor enable excellence’.
The proposals include:
• Abolishing regulation of the qualifying law degree where the SRA’s role duplicates that of the Quality Assurance Agency;
• Removing the requirement for the SRA to issue a certificate of completion of the academic stage of training;
• Removing prescriptive training contract requirements; and
• Replacing student enrolment with a ‘targeted’ means of dealing with character and suitability issues.
Townsend said the changes will ensure better access to the profession by those less likely to progress through the traditional routes, and give the opportunity for those non-solicitors working in legal roles, including paralegals, to become solicitors without going through the current ‘tightly structured’ process.
He stressed that while the proposals, which will be finalised following consultation before the end of 2014, would be ‘more flexible’ they are ‘not light-touch’.
Townsend also stressed the need to progress as rapidly as possible ‘if reform is not to stall’.
The bar’s regulator, the Bar Standards Board, also responded to the LETR, setting out a programme of reform along similar lines.
It will also be ‘outcomes-focused’, moving away from rigid prescription, developing a competency framework and enabling flexibility in the routes to qualification.
The initial development of the BSB’s programme of reform will take place this winter and carry on into the spring.
The BSB’s head of education and training, Simon Thornton-Wood, said: ‘It is still early days since the publication of the LETR, but this framework will help us to chart a course through a time of significant change in the legal services market.’
He expected that the BSB would be slightly slower than the SRA in moving to the new regime, as the idea of a ‘competency framework’ is a ‘new language’ for the bar.
‘We have quite a bit of groundwork to do to set out in broad terms what a competency framework looks like,’ he said.