The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) will be introducing an independent assessment, the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE), to make sure all solicitors meet consistent, high standards at the point of entry to the profession.
The SQE will replace the current system of qualification, where multiple courses and examinations mean that neither the public nor law firms can have full confidence that qualifying solicitors are all meeting the same high standards. Almost four out of five members of the public say they would have more confidence in solicitors if they passed the same final examination (see Notes to Editors).
As well as building trust and confidence, the SQE should also help widen access to the profession. It will help validate different routes to qualification, including ‘earn as you learn’ pathways such as apprenticeships. The SQE structure will also get rid of the current problem where many would-be solicitors have to take the ‘Legal Practice Course (LPC) gamble’ by paying large up-front costs, often up to £15,000, with no guarantee of a training contract or becoming a solicitor. The new assessment will introduce a more flexible approach to a period of work-based experience, addressing the training contract bottleneck.
The decision comes after 18 months of extensive engagement. The SRA has spoken to almost 9,000 people and had more than 500 responses to its two consultations. It has responded by making changes to its initial proposals, including making a degree or equivalent, and a two-year period of work experience, necessary for qualification.
As well as the public, support for the principle of an independent assessment has come from groups such as the Law Society, Legal Services Consumer Panel and Junior Lawyers Division. But there has also been resistance to the SQE from some organisations, including training providers.
The most consistent feedback across different groups is that more work is needed to get the detail of the assessment right. The SRA will work closely with experts – from academics to law firms – on the design, testing and delivery of the SQE. It has also pushed back the implementation date until, at the earliest, September 2020 to do this and to give everyone sufficient time to prepare.
Paul Philip, SRA Chief Executive, said: “We all need to be able to trust that those who enter the profession are fit to practise. The current system cannot provide that confidence. The new SQE will provide assurance that all those who qualify, regardless of pathway or background, meet the consistently high standards we set on behalf of the public.
“It will help law firms recruit the best talent, while still giving them flexibility to tailor training to their businesses’ needs. It will help the best education providers to show just how good they are, and give candidates, from all backgrounds, a fair opportunity to qualify. And it will meet public expectations that all solicitors take the same exam and meet the same high professional standards.
“Views on the SQE are wide ranging. The depth of feedback has been invaluable in helping us shape our proposals. We want that to continue. By working closely with everyone we will create a modern, world-class assessment.”
The new qualification will have four elements. In order to qualify as a solicitor, candidates will need to:
• have passed SQE stages 1 and 2 to demonstrate they have the right knowledge and skills
• have been awarded a degree or an equivalent qualification, or have gained equivalent experience
• have completed at least two years of qualifying legal work experience
• be of satisfactory character and suitability.
After full implementation, candidates who have already started working towards qualifying to be a solicitor will have the choice of which route to follow – the existing route or the SQE – for a number of years. The SRA will consult on these transitional arrangements later this year.
It will also soon begin the process of appointing an assessment organisation for the SQE. Once appointed, the SRA will work with the assessment organisation, and the rest of the sector, on the detail of the SQE. It is encouraging anyone who wants to be involved to let it know at [email protected]
A summary of the responses to the consultation and the SRA’s decision on next steps is available here: www.sra.org.uk/sra/consultations/solicitors-qualifying-examination.page