Former trainee fails in bid to recoup SQE fees from law firm

Tribunal: Agreement not varied

A one-time trainee solicitor has failed in her bid to recoup from her former firm the fees she paid to study for and sit the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE).

Employment Judge Andrew Jack said the agreement that Grayfords would pay for Sophie Ashley’s SQE was based on her remaining at the firm for a period after qualification. She left before then but is now qualified.

He rejected her claim that this condition was varied while she worked at the central London practice.

Ms Ashley began working at Grayfords in August 2021 as a paralegal but soon moved onto a training contract.

In a letter in October 2021, senior partner Sheata Karim said the firm would pay her SQE exam fees provided Ms Ashley worked there for a period after she had qualified, which would be specified in a new employment contract issued nearer that time.

Having paid for her study materials, in 2022 Grayfords paid £1,558 for Ms Ashley’s SQE1 but, following technical difficulties with the exams, the fee was refunded. Meanwhile, Ms Karim offered to pay £1,690 for an SQE2 preparation course on the basis that the trainee stay for a year after qualifying.

In response, Ms Ashley said her understanding had been that only the exam fees would be subject to the claw-back, adding that it was difficult for her to agree the retention period on her existing salary (£28,000) as well as being liable for these costs.

Ms Ashley then found out she had failed the SQE1 but Ms Karim said the firm would continue to support her studies and paid for the SQE2 course.

But she refused to pay £1,622 for Ms Ashley to resit the SQE1 because she had not agreed to the retention period; the trainee paid this herself.

Ms Karim then decided not to pay for the SQE going forward but said Ms Ashley did not have to repay anything if she left. Ms Ashely resigned soon after.

Ms Ashley sought to recoup the fees she paid but Judge Jack rejected her claim that the original October 2021 agreement had been supplemented or varied orally such that her SQE fees would be paid without a retention agreement.

Neither was there was a course of conduct which achieved this: “[Grayfords] paid for her SQE books in or shortly after November 2021, her SQE1 examination fees in or shortly after March 2022 and her QLTS course fees in October [2022], in each case without there being a retention agreement in place.

“But this is not a case of a series of similar contracts containing certain conditions followed by another contract which does not explicitly refer to those conditions.

“Further, even if the agreement recorded in the letter of 11 October 2021 had been a binding contract regarding the payment of SQE fees, the respondent did not breach it.

“The agreement was explicitly that the respondent would pay SQE fees provided that the claimant remained at the respondent post qualification. The claimant resigned before she had qualified, and so did not remain at the firm for a period post qualification.”

This meant Ms Ashley’s claim for damages failed, as did her breach of contract claim for the course fees she paid herself – there was no contract requiring Grayfords to repay this.

Grayfords succeeded with a breach of contract claim over a key fob Ms Ashley did not return. She was ordered to pay the firm the £42 spent to replace it.

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