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Approval of SQE not a foregone conclusion, LSB warns

Phillips: LSB should drive the conversation on SQE

Approval of the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) is not a foregone conclusion, the Legal Services Board (LSB) is to make clear to the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA).

The oversight regulator expects the SRA to address concerns over quality and cost when it comes to make its application for approval of various rules needed to launch the proposed new qualification regime in September 2021.

In March 2018, the LSB approved [1] the SRA’s initial application setting out the framework for the SQE.

In a paper to the recent meeting of the full LSB, Chris Nichols, its director of regulation and policy, said a second application to approve changes to the SRA’s rules was expected in July or August 2020.

Though the actual content of the regulatory arrangements requiring approval would be “limited”, Mr Nichols told the board that the application “will be assessed more broadly as the overall ‘switching on’ provisions for the scheme”.

He explained: “This is appropriate and necessary given the number and range of substantive issues that were raised during the first application and for which we did not have sufficient evidence to conclude our assessment.”

These included quality. “It is important that the SQE provides a fully valid assessment of competence and that quality, and perceptions of quality, are not compromised,” Mr Nichols said.

Another issue was qualifying work experience (QWE): “Stakeholders have expressed concern about sign-off arrangements, the risk of those undertaking it being treated poorly and getting limited utility from their time and the overall lack of any quality assurance of the process by the SRA.

“This highlights an issue about the clarity of what is expected from QWE and expectations around development of meaningful quality criteria for assessing QWE. This is an area where we will expect the SRA to provide further evidence to justify its position.”

A core aim of the SQE is to make admission as a solicitor more affordable and more accessible. Mr Nichols said: “It will be important to ensure clarity about how and the extent to which these benefits will be delivered across the full range of routes to admission.”

The LSB would also expect to see an updated equality, diversity and inclusion impact assessment, and how the SRA planned to evaluate the impact of the changes. The latter “will be a significant consideration in our assessment”, Mr Nichols said.

Following the meeting, the LSB is write to the SRA, setting out the issues that are likely to be the focus of its scrutiny, and will also call on it to arrange a roundtable discussion with representatives from the LSB, Law Society, the Junior Lawyers Division and the justice select committee – all three of which have expressed concerns about the SQE.

Writing on the LSB website, chair Dr Helen Phillips said: “The board is aware of the strength of feeling around the SRA’s introduction of the SQE… It is my view that the LSB should drive forward this conversation, and we aim to seek views long in advance of the SRA’s next application.”

The Law Society and its Junior Lawyers Division wrote to the SRA earlier in the autumn to outline their outstanding concerns. These included inadequate equality, diversity and inclusion risk assessments, a lack of clarity as to how QWE would work, the reliance on multiple-choice questions to assess functioning legal knowledge, and the impact of removing the requirement for a qualifying law degree or a graduate diploma in law.