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SRA claims still ‘strong case’ for controversial ‘super exam’

Regulator launches second consultation for solicitors qualifying examination

3 October 2016

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The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) believes there is still a ‘strong case’ for an overhaul of legal education and training after launching a new consultation into its single assessment for aspiring solicitors.

The solicitors qualifying examination (SQE) – dubbed the regulator’s ‘super exam’ – has been designed to address a lack of consistent standards for qualification, as well as increasing diversity, lowering costs, and opening up a variety of routes into the profession.

The SRA drew heavy criticism from the legal profession and academics when it first proposed the SQE late last year. In June, the regulator announced it would delay plans to introduce its contentious plans until 2017 after receiving approximately ‘100 wholly negative’ responses to the first consultation.

The SRA’s second consultation provides a detailed view of what its ‘substantial and rigorous’ super exam might look like. The proposed model is split into two stages and is based on the statement of solicitor competence, published in April 2015. Stage one would focus on practical legal knowledge, while the latter stage focuses on practical legal skills, such as client interviewing and advocacy.

The assessments, which would be graded either as a ‘pass’ or ‘fail’, would include single best answer questions, extended matching questions, and multiple choice questions.

In addition to the SQE, those intent on qualifying as a solicitor would also be required to have a degree or equivalent qualification, complete a two-year period of workplace training, and meet the regulator’s ‘character and suitability requirements’, currently being drawn up as part of the new-look SRA handbook.

According to the SRA, many respondents to its first consultation wanted work-based training to be retained under the new regime. However, other respondents flagged the difficulty in obtaining a training contract as a barrier to becoming a solicitor.

If implemented, the SQE will allow wannabe solicitors to complete their work-based learning requirement at a student law clinic, or through a sandwich degree placement, time spent as a paralegal, or a formal training contract.

Paul Philip, the regulator’s chief executive, said that, having taken on board a ‘wide range of views’ and gathered more evidence, there was still a ‘strong case’ for the super exam proposals.

‘We want to make sure that the solicitors of the future have the high standards and skills needed to compete both domestically and in a global market,’ he said. ‘And we know that, internationally, an entrance examination is common practice in other major jurisdictions, from New York to New Zealand.’

Writing in the foreword to the consultation, the chair of the SRA Board, Enid Rowlands, said the public appetite for a central assessment was ‘strong’ following recent independent polling.

‘Four in five adults in England and Wales told us they believed everyone should pass the same final exam to become a solicitor,’ she explained, ‘while three-quarters said they would have more confidence in solicitors if they all passed the same final exam.’

Nevertheless, the profession may need further convincing. Writing in Solicitors Journal earlier this year, Jackie Panter, associate head of law at Manchester Metropolitan University, feared the market would devolve into ‘competition for the shortest courses at the cheapest cost, with the sole objective of successfully completing the SQE’.

Meanwhile, Bryan Scant, vice chair of the Junior Lawyers Division of the Law Society, argued that the exam would not promote diversity and would ‘do nothing to help remove the perception that the legal profession is an “old boys” club’. Regular SJ columnist Pippa Allsop agreed, opining that the SQE would likely result in the widely feared two-tier system, with non-graduates stigmatised.

Hogan Lovells’ Ruth Grant and Viola Joseph provided the City perspective, predicting the SQE would not test to a high enough standard and would cause disruption to firms’ practices. Moreover, they feared the proposals would damage the reputation of solicitors with domestic and international consumers.

Addressing some of the arguments against a change to the status quo, Julie Brannan, the SRA’s director of education and training, told Solicitors Journal that the proposals had benefitted from dialogue with stakeholders and the profession.

‘We needed to recognise that, with the numbers of people going to university at the moment, the profession would continue to predominantly remain a graduate profession and it seemed appropriate for that to be a requirement [in the SQE],’ she admitted.

Although the exact cost of the SQE is yet to be published, the SRA expects its new-look training regime to cost students less than the expensive legal practice course (LPC).

However, asked what would stop legal education providers inflating the SQE’s cost to make up for any drops in revenue, Brannan said: ‘We are proposing a much more competitive marketplace. We plan on publishing how students at different education providers perform on the SQE, showing real objective data about quality and performance as well as cost.

‘We would avoid what we see at the moment where, because there isn’t enough information for students about where the best courses are, students pick the most expensive ones. There have been providers who have tried to develop cheap LPCs but they’ve failed because students think “cheap” means “shoddy”.’

According to Brannan, a number of universities are already considering how to incorporate the new assessments into their undergraduate degrees: ‘It will make decisions clearer for undergraduates who are unsure about being a solicitor but like the idea of studying law and want a more academic course. Alternatively they might go to a more vocational course.

‘Some universities might have a more generic course in the first two years and then give their students a choice in year three. There will be a lot more clarity as to the purpose of the law degree that universities are offering and that will be a good thing.’

Brannan also addressed the controversy over who would have to complete the SQE. As reported by Solicitors Journal in February, barristers and legal executives might avoid sitting the super exam, contradicting the belief that no qualifying solicitor would be exempt from the test.

‘There are a number of different groups to look at, including European lawyers – Brexit has certainly put the cat among the pigeons – but our starting point is that everyone needs to take the SQE assessment,’ said Brannan, although she also admitted that the SRA would hold separate discussions with other relevant legal regulators across UK jurisdictions.

The consultation runs until 9 January 2017. The SRA is also publishing a summary and analysis of responses from its first consultation, together with copies of the individual responses it received.

John van der Luit-Drummond is deputy editor of Solicitors Journal

john.vanderluit@solicitorsjournal.co.uk | @JvdLD

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