SRA delays SQE plans following 100 negative responses
Universities oppose controversial plans while law firms have mixed opinion
The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has delayed plans to introduce its contentious 'super exam' until 2017 after it received a host of negative responses when it was proposed earlier this year.
The regulator said there was still a 'strong case' for the proposed solicitors qualifying exam (SQE) following more than 240 replies to its consultation, but admitted that more work was needed to 'get the detail right' before a final decision was made.
The SRA originally planned to make its decision on the principle of introducing the SQE this month before then consulting on the detail of its plans. However, the regulator has now delayed its final decision until spring next year.
A further consultation is now planned for the autumn. Delaying the decision means the SQE is unlikely to be introduced before the start of the 2019/20 academic year.
SRA executive director Crispin Passmore explained that while there was some support for the proposals, the plans had proved controversial and garnered considerable opposition from university lecturers, who had a stake in maintaining the traditional approach to training. The responses from law firms was said to be more mixed.
Passmore said the consultation had received approximately '100 wholly negative' responses and around '50 wholly positive' reactions. Roughly 100 respondents said they were 'not keen' on the exam's design at the present time and called for more detail about how the qualification process would work before they could reach a firm view, while others questioned whether the current system was broken.
Passmore also advised that the next consultation would consider whether there would be a work-based training element incorporated into the SQE, which he could not see being 'less than a year'.
The second consultation will also provide a draft of the assessment framework, which explains in detail the potential nature of the super exam, its level of difficulty, breadth, and depth.
Paul Philip, the SRA's chief executive, said: 'The case for a form of centralised assessment is strong. It addresses the problem that, currently, qualifications are not comparable - multiple courses and exams mean that standards can vary significantly and there is a lack of transparency.
'Any new assessment needs to be fair and consistent and ensure that new solicitors can meet the high standards that the public and employers expect.'
Philip said the regulator recognised the call for more detail and that a period of work-based learning was a fundamental component of the process.
'We will continue to listen and gather more evidence,' he continued. 'Our autumn consultation should broaden and deepen the debate, as everyone will have the chance to look at the detail and how our proposals all fit together. It is important that we do not rush any change. Our priority is getting this right.'
A summary of the first consultation responses will be published in autumn alongside the second consultation.
The SQE has received criticism from across the profession. Writing in Solicitors Journal in April, Hogan Lovells's Ruth Grant and Viola Joseph said there was a 'fear that part one of the SQE will not test to a high enough standard'. Meanwhile, Jackie Panter, associate head of law at Manchester Metropolitan University, said the SQE could result in 'pile 'em high, sell 'em cheap' education for students.
Helen Hudson, head of postgraduate professional courses at Nottingham Law School, said: 'We are pleased to see the SRA listening to the profession and pausing fully to consider the way forward. Whilst we have no fundamental objection to centralised assessment, our concerns focus on the potentially negative impact upon widening access and the need to maintain academic rigour.
'We welcome the opportunity for further consultation based on a more detailed outline of how the SQE would work and the development of a clear assessment framework. It is vital that changes to qualification routes are fit for purpose for both students and practice.'