SRA delays super-exam decision until spring 2017

The Solicitors Regulation Authority is to press on with its plans for a new ‘super-exam’ taken at the point of qualification, but has delayed its final decision until next spring after the legal profession demanded more detail of how it would work.

The initial proposal, revealed last December, suggested that all intending solicitors, regardless of the type of training they have gone through, should take a new ‘Solicitors Qualification Exam’ (SQE) at the point of qualification.

It attracted a large amount of criticism from across the profession, with one academic warning that the SQE would represent “dangerous dumbing down”, while Hogan Lovells, writing on Lawyer 2B, said: “We fear that the SQE will not test to a high enough standard and we fear the proposals will disadvantage the people they’re designed to help.”

Following the consultation, the SRA says there is a still a “strong case” for the super-exam. It originally planned to make a decision this month on the principle of introducing the SQE before consulting on the detail. However, it has pushed back its final decision until spring 2017. A second, “much more detailed” consultation will take place this autumn that will respond to the issues and requests raised by the profession in the first one.

SRA executive director Crispin Passmore indicated the second consultation would confirm that there would be a work-based training element incorporated in any requirements, saying: “I can’t see that it would be less than a year; lots have people have said to us 18 months, others have said two years.”

The consultation will also provide a draft of the Assessment Framework, which will give more detail of the difficulty, breadth and depth of the SQE. 

The initial consultation, which closed in March, received around 240 responses. Around 40 to 50 were “wholly positive,” with around 100 more that were “wholly negative.” The remaining hundred or so were “not keen on the proposals as they are currently designed,” but thought they could be a good route forward if revisions were made, the SRA said.

Passmore said that the bulk of negative responses came from academics and universities. The response from law firms was more mixed, with many seeing opportunities in the proposals, while organisations such as the Law Society, the Law Centres Network and the Black Solicitors Network were broadly supportive.

Passmore also suggested that there would be no introduction of the SQE until at least the 2019/20 academic year – a year later than had originally been suggested.

On ensuring the qualification is respected across the world, he said: “Increasingly, other countries have flexibility that is on a par with us in terms of qualification. The thing that will maintain the credibility of English and Welsh solicitors is a centralised assessment that everyone can look at and say, ‘That is a tough assessment’.”

SRA chief executive Paul Philip said: “Significant issues were raised and we should look at those, but it has been agreed this is a route worth exploring further.”

He added: “I think the case for a form of centralised assessment is strong. We recognise the call for more detail, and the need to make sure that the SQE is targeted and proportionate while maintaining essential high standards. I am absolutely clear that a period of work-based learning has to be a fundamental component of the process.”

“We will continue to listen and gather more evidence. Our autumn consultation should broaden and deepen the debate, as everyone will have the chance to look at the detail and how our proposals fit together. It is important we do not rush any change. Our priority is getting this right.”

Responding to the news, Helen Hudson, the head of postgraduate professional courses at Nottingham Law School, said: “We are pleased to see the SRA listening to the profession and pausing fully to consider the way forward.”

“While we have no fundamental objection to centralised assessment, our concerns focus on the potentially negative impact upon widening access and the need to maintain academic rigour. We welcome the opportunity for further consultation based on a more detailed outline of how the SQE would work and the development of a clear assessment framework. It is vital that changes to qualification routes are fit for purpose for both students and practice.”