ULaw: SRA’s super-exam won’t raise standards or boost diversity

The University of Law has raised its concerns about the SRA’s proposals for a new solicitor ‘super-exam.’

The initial proposal, revealed in December 2015, suggested that all intending solicitors, regardless of the type of training they have gone through, should take the 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”, leading the SRA to launch a second consultation and delay its final decision until spring 2017.

Speaking to Lawyer 2B in October, the SRA’s Director of Education and Training Julie Brannan said: “We were really pleased with the level of response in the first consultation. A lot of people felt they needed more detail. The conversation has really helped develop our thinking and the new proposals that take on board that feedback.”

In its revised proposals, the organisation proposed four key building blocks that will lead to qualification as a solicitor.

However, the University of Law has not been convinced by the changes. Professor Andrea Nollent, who took on the role of vice-chancellor and CEO of the legal education provider after the departure of Dr Stelios Platis in October 2016, has raised particular concerns about the final exam.

She said: “We do think there are positive reasons for a centralised system of examination, particularly to achieve consistency. Although we don’t oppose the concept of centralised examinations, we disagree that the proposed SQE will be a robust and effective measure of competence. We welcome the desirability of widening participation in the profession, but we don’t believe that these proposals, as they stand will, achieve these collective aims.”

“We agree that, as with other professions, law should be a graduate profession but the SQE will be too superficial in stage 1 and too narrow and restricted in stage 2, to properly assess the competence needed for trainee or qualified solicitors to safely act for the public. In particular, the loss of elective subjects means that the level of understanding of key practice areas will inevitably be lower under the SQE regime than the current one. Firms will find their trainees will not have the subject knowledge of the area they are working on, nor the same level of skills in applying knowledge to practice areas that current trainees have. We anticipate that many law firms will require additional courses to be undertaken before the period of work-based learning commences to make up for the competence gap. These courses will add to the cost of training, and potentially end up costing students more than the current LPC.

In addition, said Nollent, “we are concerned the proposed SQE may not develop or test the full range of intellectual skills needed to practise law. This may mean students are less equipped for practice than they are under the current pathways to qualification. The SRA proposals may also impact negatively on diversity, with firms reverting to recruiting trainees from tried and tested backgrounds.

“We appreciate that there is always scope to improve quality and raise standards, but we don’t feel the SQE as currently proposed will achieve this. We will continue to engage with the SRA and other relevant parties to explore how best to advance the training, assessment, and qualification process for the profession.”

The consultation on the SRA’s proposals closes on Monday.