The Solicitors Qualifying Examination
The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has recently launched a second consultation into its proposal for a Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE). But what are the proposals, and how will they affect the ways in which aspiring solicitors will qualify in the future?
Background: What is the SQE and why does the SRA think it is necessary?
The SRA first proposed the idea of the SQE in its consultation paper, Training for Tomorrow, published in December 2015. The basic idea is to introduce a common assessment that will be taken by all aspiring solicitors, prior to qualification.The SRA envisaged that the SQE would consist of two stages. Stage 1 would assess legal knowledge of the core subjects by means of ‘computer-based objective testing’ (that is, a selection of multiple choice, true-false and assertion questions). Stage 2 would assess legal skills by means of standardised practical legal tasks, for example, role playing exercises and questions based around case studies. Under the original proposals, aspiring solicitors would not need a qualifying law degree, GDL or LPC to qualify, nor would they necessarily need to undertake a period of work-based learning.
The main issue that the SRA wants to address is consistency of standards. As the SRA explained in the foreword to its first consultation paper: “With 104 institutions offering Qualifying Law Degrees; 33 offering the GDL; 26 offering the LPC and over 2,000 firms offering traineeships, the lack of a common basis for assessing the quality of output from these bodies, or at the end of the training contract, is a cause of increasing concern”.
By introducing a standardised test, the SRA hopes to create a system which can guarantee that the standard of solicitors entering the profession is consistently high. Beyond this, the SRA hopes that the proposals would reduce the cost of legal education, open up new pathways to qualification, and help diversify the profession.
Response to the First Consultation
Despite these aims, the SRA attracted heavy criticism during its first consultation from across the legal profession. Many argued that the proposals lacked detail and that the introduction of the SQE would not meet the stated goals. In particular, it was argued that law firms would still require a qualifying law degree (or equivalent); that the introduction of the SQE would result in ‘crammer courses’ that would be unregulated by the SRA and would be driven by purely commercial considerations, such as how to attract the largest number of students; and that, as a result, the cost of qualifying could increase. In addition, there were no guarantees that a standardised exam would maintain quality in the profession.
As such the SRA has spent the past 6 months reviewing responses to its first consultation and have now advanced a revised, more detailed, proposal. In short, the basic two part system remains. Aspiring solicitors will now be required to:
• Pass Stages 1 and 2 of the SQE
• Be educated to degree level (in any subject) or equivalent qualification
• Pass the SRA’s character and suitability requirements
• Have a substantial period of work experience
The SRA envisages that Stage 1 of the SQE will be taken before work experience is gained, but Stage 2 would take place afterwards. Moreover, the general idea is that the requirement for a ‘substantial period of work experience’ should be far more flexible than the traditional training contract, and would encompass work based-learning. This represents something of a departure from the traditional LPC route, in which students must gain a qualifying law degree or GDL followed by completion of the LPC and two year training contract.
The extent to which the proposals will change the way in which solicitors qualify in the future, will remain unclear until the SQE is implemented. In theory, at least, the proposals represent a more liberal approach to qualification, which could open more routes through which aspiring solicitors can qualify.
If implemented, the SRA’s proposals will come into effect in August 2019. Full details of the revised proposals can be found here, where you can also submit your responses. The consultation closes on 9 January 2017.