The SRA should cut out the middle man of legal training
As the regulator rethinks its SQE proposals, it needs to address the costs of legal courses, says John van der Luit-Drummond
U-turns of ill-thought-out policies seem to have been all the rage this week. As the chancellor, George Osborne, vowed to 'listen and learn' from his blundering Budget, the chief executive of the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) promised to 'pause and rethink' its widely ridiculed legal training reforms.
Speaking about the solicitors qualifying exam (SQE) at the SRA Innovate conference, Paul Philip said that controversial plans to scrap the requirement for a minimum period of workplace training for wannabe solicitors would be reassessed following less-than-positive feedback.
'There will be something that looks like a training contract. It will be based in the workplace and assessed in the workplace,' he said. 'Maintaining high professional standards is absolutely paramount. We're not going to just plough on with our educational reforms unless we feel it is the right thing to do.
'We will pause and consider all the consultation responses, to make sure people feel they've been heard. There may be a slight hiatus while we do that,' he continued. 'We feel it is right to make clear that workplace assessment will continue to be part of the model. High professional standards are what we're all about.'
Amid some confusion over who will be required to sit it, the SRA's 'super exam' has come in for heavy criticism. While backing the idea of a centralised assessment, the Law Society warned that allowing non-graduates to become solicitors risked damaging standards.
In her most recent SJ columns, Pippa Allsop suggested the SQE would remove one barrier and replace it with another economic hurdle for aspiring lawyers, and would lead to a two-tier system, with non-graduates the black sheep of the profession. Meanwhile, in this week's issue, the Junior Lawyers Division argued that the exam would do nothing to remove the perception that the profession was still an 'old boys' club'.
Condemnation has also come from academics. Jackie Panter, associate head of law at Manchester Metropolitan University, told SJ she feared the reforms could result in a 'pile 'em high, sell 'em cheap' education process. Professor Peter Crisp, the dean of BPP University's law school, also warned: 'These proposals, if implemented, will seriously damage this country's legal profession's international standing.'
Moreover, Professor Anthony Bradney argued that Britain and its legal services industry would be the loser under the proposals. 'In the whimsical world of the SRA, things work differently. Bulls manage china shops. Guess-work and paradox appear to be seen as sound policy bases. Assertion is seen as a useful substitute for argument. Fairy stories replace the unwelcome truths of reality.
'The SRA's reforms are an experiment that is dangerous for the solicitors' profession and dangerous for those thinking of joining it in the future,' he concluded in his paper for the think tank Politeia, entitled 'Dumbing Down the Law'.
The SQE, in its current format, is clearly the worst proposal to come out of Birmingham's Cube in quite some time. Its 60-page consultation document is an affront to the environment. That a tree died for such drivel to be printed should madden any environmentalists among the solicitor ranks.
'High standards' may be all the SRA cares about, but its proposals are damaging for social mobility and diversity. It should, instead, address the elephant in the room: the extortionate cost of the legal practice course.
Why should any aspiring solicitor be saddled with up to £15,000-worth of debt for a nine-month course that teaches basic advocacy, the civil procedure rules, and the ability to fill in numerous court forms? All of this and more can be taught at either undergraduate level or in-house during a training contract.
If the SRA is really listening, as it purports to be, then it should cut out the 'middle men' of legal training. Maybe then the profession would be more receptive to its less-than super exam.