This article was first published in Solicitors Journal on 12 January 2016 and is reproduced by kind permission
Pippa Allsop asks whether the exam is removing one barrier and replacing it with an economic hurdle
The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) opened a consultation last month setting out its proposals in relation to the solicitors qualifying examination (SQE), a ‘new standardised system for assessing trainees… based on the competencies required to do the job’. The SQE would supposedly manage the current inability to ‘measure the quality of students who emerge from the [training] process’, which for the SRA is a cause of increasing concern.
While welcoming the development of new pathways to qualification, such as apprenticeship and ‘equivalent means’, the SRA says these changes ‘would ensure consistent high standards of entry into the profession.’
One of the criticisms levelled at the plans so far has been that the SQE would give non-graduates access to the profession. Clearly this is in line with improving diversity within the legal profession through lowering the currently extortionate costs of the route to qualification.
Confusingly, the SRA has stated that ‘the standard for qualification will be set at least at graduate level or equivalent’, while also claiming ‘there are likely to be some intending solicitors who are able to demonstrate this level of ability without obtaining a graduate degree’.
It does seem strange to use the measure of ‘graduate’ while also saying that people can achieve the requisite level without actually being one, which to me would indicate the measure of ‘graduate’ does not mean anything. The president of the Law Society, Jonathan Smithers, has argued that ‘a degree-level qualification is essential – academic rigour underpins the commercial success of the profession’.
This point also bridges the second criticism, in relation to whether costs will actually be decreased and diversity improved. The SRA has made it clear that it anticipates employers will still expect a degree and the completion of the legal practice route (around £42,000 of fees altogether), and so the question is, will the SQE simply create another layer of costs involved in the route to qualification? Other commentators have raised the issue of resits and the associated costs of the same, giving those with greater resources an advantage and creating another potential economic hurdle in achieving the SQE’s ‘potential to remove barriers’.
Similarly, there has been criticism of the optional SQE preparation courses, which, if not compulsory, would arguably be hard to achieve funding for. This would result in only those with the available finances benefiting from such courses and would further increase the associated costs involved in becoming a solicitor. On this point, at least, it appears that the potential positive impact on improving diversity in the profession will largely depend on training providers taking a decision to offer cheaper training.
The consultation period ends on 4 March 2016, with any new regulations coming into force no earlier than the start of the academic year 2018/19, and the SRA will be publishing a further consultation on specific proposals for entry requirements for the SQE and pre-qualification work experience in 2016.
While it is unquestionably right that the issue of people coming into the legal profession from diverse routes and backgrounds should be proactively addressed, it remains to be seen whether the SQE is the right tool for the job, or whether, as I strongly suspect, it will be part of the more multi-faceted approach that will ultimately be required.
For more information please contact Pippa Allsop at email@example.com