The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has acknowledged strong opposition as it extends its consultation on its controversial plans to introduce a unified exam for assessing trainee solicitors.
The proposed Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) is a final exam which will test trainees’ knowledge and skills against the SRA’s 2015 Statement of Solicitor Competence, which outlines the competencies required of newly-qualified solicitors.
Following more than 240 responses, the SRA confirmed there had been ‘considerable opposition, particularly from universities and academic representative groups’. The regulatory body added: ‘many respondents felt they needed more detail about how the whole qualification process would work before they could reach a firm view, while others questioned whether the current system was broken.’
For the duration of the extension, the SRA will draft up more detailed proposals about how the exam will operate alongside work-based learning and establish a draft of the assessment framework. Both documents will be consulted on in the autumn. The delay means the implementation of the exam has been extended from 2018 to no earlier than the academic year 2019/20.
SRA chief executive Paul Philip said the case for a form of centralised assessment is strong, adding the standardised exam addresses the problem that current 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.’
Phillip (pictured) added: ‘I welcome the support from organisations such as the Law Society, the Law Centres Network and the Black Solicitors Network. Yet we have had some useful challenges. We recognise the call for more detail, and the need to make sure that the SQE is targeted and proportionate while maintaining the essential high standards. I am absolutely clear that a period of work-based learning has to be a fundamental component of the process.’
There are currently different routes to qualifying as a solicitor in England and Wales, with each of these pathways holding its own final assessment.
The most common route is for graduates to take the LPC, which is backed up by a period of recognised training. Non-graduates are able to qualify as solicitors under ‘equivalent means’ when they sit exams after having demonstrated they possess the required level of legal experience. Thirdly, barristers and foreign qualified lawyers are able to qualify as solicitors in England and Wales by completing the Qualified Lawyers Transfer Scheme.
Former president of the University of Law and consultant Nigel Savage described it as a radical proposal for a conservative organisation like the legal profession.
He added: ‘The SRA are right not to rush it. The law firms are on a journey in terms of their recruitment and we’ve got to help them get there. It will create a much more flexible framework in terms of recruitment in the education of students at different levels. If [firms] need more time then they should take more time. There have been some negative responses for some of the law schools, but you would expect that because they don’t want their own business models to be affected.’
Read more on legal education in the comment piece: ‘Time to move on – Savage argues legal education is falling behind the realities of the profession‘