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SRA receives more than 200 responses to second SQE proposals

Ongoing concerns over excessive emphasis on multiple choice assessment

1 February 2017

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The Solicitors Regulation Authority is yet to share any insight about the more than 200 responses it has received to its second consultation on the introduction of the solicitors qualifying examination, which closed on 9 January.

A spokesperson for the SRA said the regulator ‘engaged with more than 6,800 people in the course of the consultation through 45 events, meetings, and digital activities’, and had ‘direct conversations with almost 80 universities during the development of the SQE – or two-thirds of all law course providers’.

The initial consultation, which ran between December 2015 and March 2016, received about 240 responses, 100 of which were ‘wholly negative’. But launching its second consultation on 3 October last year, the regulator said there was still a strong case for the SQE.

Despite clarification in places, many of the concerns that emerged during the first consultation have remained, especially those around the opening up of the profession to prospective solicitors from less privileged backgrounds. According to some practitioners, the profession has already found its solution to the issue of diversity. Some academics even argue that SQE as it stands will be counter-productive in this respect.

The proposal for a centralised process received some support in principle but several academic institutions have doubts it will, in practice, provide a robust and effective measure of competence. Just as the consultation closed, the Society of Legal Scholars, which represents 3,000 legal academics, filed a response calling the whole proposal ‘fundamentally flawed’.

Some of the changes have been welcome, however, especially the requirement for a degree and the need for a minimum period of work experience, which are currently essential elements of the qualification pathway.

‘Reintroducing the requirement of a degree was absolutely key, along with making it clear that there needs to be a period of work experience with a certain amount of time attached to it,’ said Liz Smart, principal lecturer and head of law at Sheffield Hallam.

‘These are essential components the legal education system in the UK has always prided itself upon; it’s recognised as the best way to learn and develop your legal skills,’ Smart told Solicitors Journal. ‘I don’t think it was ever intended that those things shouldn’t happen, but it wasn’t clearly spelt out. Now it’s been clarified, it gives the profession a greater degree of certainty and more confidence about the proposals after the original misgivings.’

The Law Society also welcomed clarification around minimum academic qualifications and work experience but sounded a note of caution on a number of points, such as the assessment via multiple choice questions. ‘The introduction of these assessments must not result in a reductive assessment as this could have the unintended consequence of adding pressure to those teaching to reduce their curriculum to what is covered in the assessments,’ it said in its response to the consultation.

Smart voiced similar concerns. ‘Multiple choice can be a very good way of assessing both breadth and depth, but I tend to agree with the profession that it shouldn’t be the only method of assessment,’ she said. ‘If we end up with an assessment regime that is predominantly simply multiple choice, then that is some cause for concern.’

Smart commented that ‘a lot of the detail has not been fleshed out’ but said that multiple choice questions were ‘as valid an assessment as any other – as the SRA points out, they have been used for years and successfully in the medical profession.’ However, she warned there were legitimate queries about whether there was ‘too much emphasis on only multiple choice’.

The SRA is scheduled to publish its response in late spring, when the SRA board will consider how to proceed. It is expected that the SQE would come into effect at the earliest for students embarking on a law degree or conversion course in September 2019.

Jean-Yves Gilg is editor in chief at Solicitors Journal

jean-yves.gilg@solicitorsjournal.co.uk @jeanyvesgilg

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