New exam, Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE), progresses with an amber light


This March, the Legal Services Board (LSB),  which is responsible for overseeing 10 separate professional governing bodies, including the Solicitors Regulation Authority and (SRA) and the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEx), gave approval for a new qualifying regime for solicitors.  Before this announcement, the LSB had delayed plans  to approve a change in the training and qualification of solicitors in England and Wales (on two occasions) .

Shortly before the recent announcement, the House of Common’s Justice Committee chaired by Bob Neill MP, repeated concerns about the proposals which had been raised by other representative bodies (such as the law Society).  The Committee had urged a further delay of 6 months because the Committee was concerned that the new Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE) raised public policy issues, with the risk of damaging the profession, and ultimately the UK, as a legal jurisdiction of choice.

The LSB stated the decision had been made following a thorough consideration of the application.  The approval marks a further stage in the introduction of the SQE, and the LSB will have to approve further applications from the SRA to change the qualifying rules.

Background

The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) had been attempting to make the biggest change in training for two decades by introducing the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE).

The SQE will return to the principle of a centralised assessment, on which the “old” Law Society Finals (LSF) was designed.  The Legal Practice Course (LPC), which replaced the LSF,  is currently assessed separately by each teaching institution, with each institution being responsible for the format and rigor of the assessments. Equivalence is, in theory, maintained by  validated course providers meeting the LPC board’s overarching standards,  despite variations in teaching and assessment methods.

To be admitted as a solicitor in the future, the SRA is proposing that;

  • A candidate must pass SQE stage 1 and stage 2 to demonstrate they have the right knowledge and skills.  Stage 1 will be a computer-based assessment which will include multiple choice questions.  Stage 2 will test practical legal skills and be taken after a period of work-based training.
  • A candidate must have been awarded a degree or an equivalent qualification (not necessarily a law degree), or gained equivalent experience
  • A candidate must complete at least 2 years qualifying experience (which could be with up to four different legal employees).
  • A candidate must be of satisfactory character and suitability.

Criticism of the proposal

The SRA has stated that it expects Universities, by altering the content of courses, to integrate preparation for SQE stage 1 into their syllabuses.  There are concerns some areas of law will be squeezed out of degrees as a result, such as Family Law, Immigration Law and other aspects of Social Welfare Law.

Exam

Furthermore, the method of assessment of stage 1 (multiple choice and other computer assessments) may diminish law graduates capacity to develop soft skills (such as communication) which are provided through quality academic courses, especially if Universities focus their assessments on providing ‘training’ for the SQE.

As a  degree will not be required to take the SQE (equivalent experience will be sufficient), various representative bodies have also raised the concern that under the new qualification scheme, the UK could end up becoming the only jurisdiction in the world that does not require an academic study of law (or the academic study of any discipline) as a preliminary to becoming a professional legal representative.

When will the SQE come into effect?

As the LSB had postponed making the decision on the new scheme twice, this has pushed back the proposed time frame for bringing the SQE into effect. It is currently  proposed that the new qualifying regime will come into force in September 2020, but this may yet  be subject to further delay whilst the detail is finalised. Anybody starting their legal education before the SQE is introduced will have until 2031 to complete their current training and should have a choice of how to qualify (under the old system, or under the new system – provided there is an institution that still provides the LPC).

 

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