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Legal education providers wary over latest SQE plans

Stakeholders must not allow detrimental changes to the profession, says law school head

5 October 2016

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The Solicitors Regulation Authority’s latest consultation on legal education reform has received a mixed reaction from the UK’s top law schools, which remain sceptical over the regulator’s proposals.

Unveiled this week, the plans would introduce the solicitors qualifying examination (SQE) and see wannabe solicitors undertake a two stage assessment process focussing on both practical legal knowledge and skills.

In addition to the SQE, aspiring solicitors must attain a degree or equivalent qualification, a two-year period of workplace training, and comply with the regulator’s ‘character and suitability requirements’, which will form part of the new-look SRA handbook.

The new ‘super exam’ is expected to cost less than the legal practice course (LPC) and, according to the regulator, open up entry to the profession. Yet legal education providers remain wary over the SRA’s plans.

Peter Crisp, Dean and CEO, BPP University Law School, said: 'Nothing has changed from the last consultation other than making entry to the profession graduate-entry, which was a very welcome concession. I still think the whole proposal utterly misconceived and wrong-headed as we said in our response to the first consultation.'

Emma Seagreaves, associate head at Manchester Law School, said the reformed routes to qualification were ‘complicated’.

‘What appears to have emerged from the SRA’s latest thinking is a series of flexible routes to qualification,’ she said. ‘These proposals will provide a challenge for law schools to decide how and what level of flexibility and integration they will incorporate into their courses.’

Helen Hudson, head of legal development at Nottingham Law School, praised the regulator’s call for work-based learning but was ambivalent over alternative routes to qualification.

‘An assessment in professional competence education can never be separated from the workplace where so much of professional method, attitudes, and skills are learned. That the SRA acknowledges this is to be applauded,’ she said.

‘The question of whether solicitors need a degree is a thorny one,’ she continued. ‘Is it right that a nurse or police officer potentially has to undertake more academic study than a lawyer? The SRA does refer to new solicitors having to hold a degree, apprenticeship, or equivalent, which is a step forward and recognises different ways in which candidates may gain the necessary level of skills and experience.’

Hudson urged stakeholders to remain engaged with the debate: ‘If the profession and legal education providers take their eyes off the ball we risk the SRA bringing in changes to qualification routes without further challenge and that could be a detrimental to the profession’s reputation and the service delivered to the public.’

The cautious responses may temper any SRA confidence which was stoked following the results of a public poll of attitudes towards the profession. Some 1,866 adults answered in the affirmative when asked whether they would have more confidence in solicitors if they all had some training in the workplace and passed the same final exam, regardless of the type of training they undertake.

Writing on his Lawyer Watch blog, Richard Moorhead, a professor of law and professional ethics at UCL London, condemned the weakness of the data and the SRA’s political motives. ‘It is as if the SRA are trying to close their mind to debate on these issues by praying in aid public polling while saying to everyone else that they should open their minds to change.’

The consultation also seeks to address the SQE’s impact on equality and diversity among solicitors. The SRA believes the exam could promote fairer access, but with seemingly more students armed with a new qualification, obtaining practical legal experience may prove as competitive as obtaining a training contract.

Hudson believes students unable to afford training courses or who have family responsibilities are likely to be disadvantaged. ‘Students impacted in this way tend to be non-majority students. If non-majority candidates fail the SQE and/or fail to retake it, this will potentially have an impact on clients as non-majority lawyers tend to service non-majority clients therefore denying these clients access to justice.

‘Historically underrepresented communities need lawyers who, in culturally sensitive ways, can provide access to justice.’

The Lord Chancellor, Liz Truss, has spoken of the need ‘to open our legal system so that it draws from all available talent in our society’. The SQE may be a small step towards this but the onus is set to remain very much on employers.

The SRA is to carry out a further equality impact assessment during the second consultation with the results to be published at the end of the consultation alongside its own response.

Matthew Rogers is a legal reporter at Solicitors Journal

matthew.rogers@solicitorsjournal.co.uk | @sportslawmatt

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