Martin Partington: Spotlight on the Justice System

Keeping the English Legal System under review

Solicitors’ Qualifying Examination – starting 2021

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After many years of gestation, at the end of October 2020 the Legal Services Board gave its approval to proposals for the new Solicitors’ Qualifying Examination, due to come into force in September. It will only apply to students starting their legal studies after that date. Those currently reading law or in legal training will have 11 years to complete their route to qualification – using the existing channels.

In outline, the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) is a single, national licensing examination that all aspiring solicitors will take before qualifying. From 1 September 2021 to qualify you will need to:

  • have a degree in any subject (or equivalent qualification or work experience – for exampe through an apprenticeship);
  • pass both stages of the SQE assessment – SQE1 which focuses on legal knowledge and SQE2 on practical legal skills;
  • have two years’ qualifying work experience (which can be undertaken in up to 4 different locations and at different times); and
  • pass the SRA’s character and suitability requirements.

The SRA’s two stated objectives for the new framework are:
• greater assurance of consistent, high standards at the point of admission
• the development of new and diverse pathways to qualification, which are responsive to the changing legal services market and promote a diverse profession by removing artificial and unjustifiable barriers.

All new entrants – even those with law degrees – will have to pass both the SQE1 and SQE2. Current arrangements – whereby students who read law at university gain exemption from Part 1 of the Law Society Finals – are abolished.

The SRA will not regulate, accredit or endorse training providers or organisations. Nor will it have any role in approving, endorsing or overseeing the training courses or materials, or their quality. It merely provides a list of providers which is intended to help potential SQE candidates to find training. By encouraging competition between providers, the SRA hopes that the costs of such courses will be reduced.

SQE1 involves a test on the application of Functioning Legal Knowledge by answering two 180 question multiple choice assessments papers.

SQE2 involves assessment of practical legal skills listed as: client interviewing with linked attendance note/legal analysis; attendance note/legal analysis; advocacy; case and matter analysis; legal research and written advice; legal drafting and legal writing.

In granting its approval, the Legal Services Board recognises that this will be a new scheme that will not be entirely risk free. Thus the LSB has drawn attention to a range of issues that the SRA will need to manage carefully to realise the full benefits of the changes. The SRA has undertaken to:

  1. Monitor and evaluate the impact of the SQE and conduct an initial review within two years of implementation.
  2. Commission independent research in 2021 to investigate the underlying reasons that candidates from some protected minority groups did not perform as well as other groups in the SQE pilots. The results of the first cohort of the SQE will inform this research.
  3. Publish comprehensive guidance on qualifying work experience for candidates and firms.
  4. Continue to demonstrate openness and transparency as it implements the SQE. This includes publishing guidance for students on the different choices of SQE training available and data on performance in SQE assessments, as well as pass rates for candidates by the SQE training provider that they attended.

The hoped-for benefits for the new scheme are that:

  • costs will be less than existing routes to qualification;
  • a more diverse range of people will enter the profession;
  • those coming new to the profession will be better prepared for work as a solicitor.

What is unknown is whether law firms will recruit from those with different educational backgrounds or practical experience and therefore whether these new requirements will increase diversity in the solicitors’ profession.

Details of the scheme are at https://www.sra.org.uk/students/sqe/

The LSB decision is at https://www.legalservicesboard.org.uk/news/legal-services-board-approves-significant-changes-to-how-solicitors-qualify

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