On Tuesday 27 March 2018, the Legal Services Board (LSB) announced that it had approved the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s (SRA) application to amend the regulatory arrangements currently governing the authorisation of solicitors, paving the way for the SRA to introduce the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE).
In a statement published on its website, the LSB stated that the approval ‘provides the framework upon which the SRA Board can seek to introduce new requirements for anyone wishing to qualify as a solicitor, including a requirement for individuals to pass a centralised assessment’.
As Woodfines have previously reported (here and here), the SRA intends to introduce the SQE so as to ensure that all aspiring solicitors undertake a centralised assessment prior to qualification. The proposals are primarily aimed at addressing a perceived lack of consistency in relation to legal qualifications currently on offer at universities and colleges across the country. The SRA also hopes that the proposals will reduce the cost of legal education, with the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) and Legal Practice Course (LPC) seen as an expensive and high risk route into the profession. The introduction of the SQE will therefore represent a shake up in legal education and, for example, will likely see the end of the GDL and LPC.
Under the Legal Services Act 2007 (LSA 2007) the LSB has responsibility for reviewing and either granting or refusing applications made by approved regulators (such as the SRA) to make alterations to their regulatory arrangements. The SRA’s plans were formally passed to the LSB in January of this year following the SRA’s second consultation, which ended on 9 January 2018. The LSB’s recent approval will be welcomed by the SRA, who are keen to implement the SQE by as early as 2020.
However, the SRA will no doubt be concerned that the proposals were the subject of widespread criticism during the second consultation. In particular it was suggested that the proposals in their current form lack clarity as to how the SQE will operate, and the concern from many within the legal industry is that the content of law courses will be ‘watered down’. This concern is perhaps best captured in a letter, written by Bob Neil MP (Chair of the Justice Committee), and submitted directly to the LSB following the conclusion of the SRA’s second consultation, which states:
“It has been brought to our attention that a number of key stakeholders….have expressed concerns about the SRA’s proposals over the course of their development, and that these remain unresolved. In particular, there are fears that the SQE framework in its current form would lead to England and Wales becoming the only jurisdiction that does not require substantive academic study of law as a precursor to qualifying as a lawyer.”
It is clear therefore that it has not been all plain sailing for the SRA, and it would be a mistake to think that the SRA’s application to amend its regulatory arrangements was simply waived through without thought.
In particular, the LSB was quick to invoke its right to extend the 28 day deadline in which to respond to the SRA’s application, having concluded that extra time was required in order to ‘allow the [SRA] to respond to questions regarding the proposed amendments’. Reading between the lines it is likely that the LSB were, like the ‘key stakeholders’ referred to in Mr Neil’s Letter to LSB, not satisfied with the amount of detail included in the SRA’s application.
Indeed, commenting upon the approval, the LSB’s Chief Executive Neil Buckley is clear that the SRA will need to flesh out their proposals if they are to implement the SQE:
“The approval of this application on its own is not sufficient to allow the SQE to be implemented. The SRA will need to make and we will need to approve further rules changes to give effect to the requirement to pass a centralised exam. When considering these further rules and deciding whether to agree with them, the LSB will expect to see more detail from the SRA - particularly on how the SQE will operate, what it will cost and the likely diversity impacts.”
It remains to be seen precisely how the SQE will operate, and whether the SRA will be able to implement its proposals by 2020. However, Mr Buckley’s comments demonstrate that, although the LSB’s approval represents an important step in the process for the SRA, further clarification from the SRA is required before the SQE can be implemented. As before, make sure to keep an eye on developments.