On the 7th of December 2015, the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) proposed a Solicitors Qualifying Examination, which would make changes to the way that solicitors qualify. The change proposed by the SRA aims to ‘ensure consistent high standards of entry into the legal profession’ by creating a system where every trainee solicitor in England and Wales will undergo the same assessment, in order to regulate whether the trainees have the competencies to work as a solicitor. These assessments are based on the Solicitor Competence Statement, which was approved for publication by the SRA Board on the 11th of March 2015.
Under the current proposals, the SQE will consist of two stages. The first stage will involve six different assessments to test trainees’ legal knowledge and legal skills, such as dispute resolution, commercial law, and so forth, and will be done through computer testing. The second stage will involve practical tests to assess trainees’ skills, such as advocacy, legal drafting, and so forth. Parts of the second stage will be done through trained actors playing the part of the client, while all written tests will be done by computer. However, the SRA are currently undecided whether the length of the legal placement will remain at 24 months, or whether this will be decreased to 18 months.
Currently, the idea itself has received positive comments, especially from members of the public, with 76 per cent of adults saying that they would have more confidence in solicitors if they all passed the same final exam. In addition, the SRA claim that these proposals will save students money, as they will no longer be required to pay the sum of the Legal Practice Course (LPC). However, the substance of the proposals has been subject to a large amount of scrutiny from legal academics and legal practitioners. As a result of these criticisms, a second consultation is currently underway, and most respondents believe that 2019, which is the year that the SRA envisage these proposals coming into force, is too soon, and that more time is required to develop them properly. The second consultation began on the 3rd of October, and will end on the 9th of January 2017.
In his article ‘Dumbing Down the Law – The SRA’s Proposals for Legal Training’ written for Politeia, a forum social and economic thinking, Professor Anthony Bradney, Professor of Law at Keele University, launched a scathing attack on SRA’s procedure during this proposal. In a 28 page document, Professor Bradney describes the proposals, before criticising the SRA for taking a largely irresponsible approach. He accuses the SRA of taking a system which currently works, and has been working for a long time, and trying to replace it with a system which is entirely uncertain. He then goes on to suggest that the SRA will not be directly affected by the proposals, and it will be the solicitors and the future students who will be ‘left to puzzle with whatever it is that the SRA finally decides to do’. He then completes his attack on the SRA, by accusing them of ignoring the criticisms and suggestions of legal academics and legal practitioners, adding ‘It is equally evident that the SRA is immune to argument and reason’.
Following this attack on the SRA, Professor Bradney then goes on to criticise the proposals made. As stated earlier, the SRA defended their proposals by pointing out that students will no longer have to pay the fees for the LPC course, which can often amount to over £10,000. However, Professor Bradney dismisses this point, by pointing to the fact that many law firms fully-fund the LPC, as long as they undertake their training contract at that law firm with some law firms even paying a maintenance fee on top of that. However, students may be required to fund the SQE exams themselves, which is likely to add up to thousands of pounds. He states that this is not an issue for students from backgrounds where finance does not matter, but for those where finance is more of a problem, a further barrier will be placed. This would especially discourage students from working class backgrounds, who are less likely to be able to fund this new financial burden, which would then have an impact on diversity within the legal profession.
Hogan Lovells, a global law firm, also expressed concern at these new proposals, however, they were much less critical than Professor Bradney. They were similarly concerned about financing difficulties which students may have, and mentioned that students may undertake less training to minimise the costs, which would have the opposite effect to that which the SRA are aiming to achieve. They were also concerned that the standard of the tests may not be high enough. For example, analytical skills require analysing text and picking out the correct answer, rather than picking out the correct answer out of a choice of five different answers in a multiple choice exam, which is the format which some of the first stage of the SQE will take. However, Hogan Lovells stated that they support the SRA’s aims, and described the proposals as ‘exciting’.
Hertfordshire University have also expressed positive comments regarding the SRA’s proposals, urging other institutions to embrace change, rather than seeking comfort in the familiar. They also state that this is an opportunity to tackle the dissatisfaction with the legal education and training required in England and Wales.
In conclusion, the SRA’s proposals have received mixed views from legal practitioners and legal academics, some of which have heavily criticised the proposals, while others have expressed that there is room for improvement, while supporting the aim of the proposals. However, it is clear that there is still more which needs to be done to address these issues, and if the SRA intends to address these criticisms effectively, then they will likely need more time to take everything into consideration. This would mean that the intention to release these proposals in 2019 is likely to be pushed back even further. For now, the future of the SQE is unclear, and will remain unclear until the end of the second consultation on the 9th of January 2017.