The market has responded to the SRA’s proposal to have a point-of-qualification ‘super-exam’ for anyone intending to become a solicitor.
Even before the proposal was opened to consultation, the idea of the Solicitors Qualifying Exam attracted criticism from the Junior Lawyers Division (JLD), which said in a statement: “We cannot see that the SRA has dedicated an appropriate level of pre-consultation public discussion to the other available options.”
Yesterday, the new JLD chair Leanne Maund told Lawyer 2B: “Removing barriers to social mobility and increasing access to the profession while still maintaining the high standards of solicitors in England and Wales is a priority issue for the JLD. As such we would support changes to the current system of qualification which further these aims.”
She added: “The JLD is pleased to see that the SRA is seriously considering a work experience element. When we wrote to the SRA, we made clear that junior solicitors value their practical experience extremely highly.
“However, the JLD continues to have concerns about this proposal. The SRA have not explained how much the exam fees would be, or suggested how this could be funded. In the absence of the Legal Practice Course, it is likely that a new course will be created to help students pass the centralised assessment which, when added to the Solicitors Qualification Exam fees, could lead to even greater cost. As such, those who can afford the course will have an advantage over those who cannot. As there does not appear to be a limitation to the number of re-sits an individual can pay for, less affluent candidates are further disadvantaged.
“The JLD will be reviewing this consultation in full and will submit a response on behalf of our members in due course.”
Nottingham Law School has also weighed in to the discussion. Its head of postgraduate professional courses Helen Hudson said: “We recently held a roundtable discussion on the SRA’s Training for Tomorrow proposal. A broad consensus was held with regards to concerns over the SRA’s approach to consultation and their clearly stated preference for centralised assessments. This reflects the position already taken by a number of key players who have been so concerned about the SRA’s plans that a number of them have felt the need to respond to the SRA even before this current consultation was launched.
“The importance and value of the journey to qualification has consistently been emphasised, including the need for undergraduate study and the retention of the qualifying law degree. If the SRA move to a centralised assessment at the point of qualification where does this leave us? The next phase of consultation is likely to centre around the abolition of prescribed routes to qualification which may well leave students and employers at sea.
“Nottingham Law School supports widening access to the profession, but on the basis that intellectual rigour and discipline to entry is maintained. The fear is that SRA’s current approach is likely to negatively impact on widening access.
“In terms of a super assessment, while in principle we have no fundamental objection to centralised assessment this could be incorporated into the current system and the detail is crucial.”
BPP dean and CEO Peter Crisp told Lawyer 2B that the rigour of the LLB and the LPC should not be diluted by any changes.
He said: “I very much welcome this opportunity to engage with the SRA and the profession about the future of legal education, and how best to ensure all those qualifying as a solicitor meet the competencies and standards required.”
“Although I have very much welcomed new routes to practice, such as the Government-backed Trailblazer apprenticeships and the flexibility they provide, it is vital that we do nothing to water down the rigour of the education and training of solicitors and that we preserve the international reputation and standing of both the LLB and the LPC in whatever future form they take.”
Steven Dinning, the head of law at the University of the West of England, told Lawyer 2B: “We can appreciate a certain level of concern regarding the consistency of standards currently achieved by would-be solicitors. However, if we are serious about the protection of the public and the securing of a high quality solicitor brand then, as well as setting these assessment requirements, we should identify carefully the actual level and detail of study and the actual skills training required for those preparing for assessment and intending to qualify.”
He added: “We will have to wait for details of how legal education may be affected and we welcome the commitment to further consultation in 2016 in this regard.”
“Without at least a certain level of prescription and qualitative control of study and skills training requirements from the regulator, one can imagine a level of confusion in the market that may not be in anyone’s best interests. For example, is it possible that a two-tier system could emerge of those who undergo rigourous pre-exam preparatory study and training and those who do not, with the former perhaps proving more attractive to future employers and thus better able to secure their longer term career prospects regardless of equivalent assessment outcomes?”
Meanwhile, students have also had their say on Twitter…