The Law Society has condemned the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) over plans to allow workplace training for solicitors to take place in organisations without any solicitors.
The society said the plans raised the prospect of external solicitors being called in to “provide confirmation about a period of work experience they may know little about”.
Under the SRA’s draft regulations, confirmation that a period of work experience has been completed must be given by the law firm’s compliance officer for legal practice (COLP), a “solicitor working within the organisation”, or if neither are applicable, “a solicitor”.
The society said it had “strong concerns” over a situation where confirmation could be provided by firms without either a COLP or a solicitor working for them and “what this might mean for the level of oversight that candidates are receiving” during their work experience.
“The absence of any input from the profession in training could undermine the relevance of such experience. In addition, it puts the solicitor who is expected to provide confirmation in a difficult position, as they are being asked to provide confirmation about a period of work experience that they may know little about.
“If work experience is to take place in an institution which has neither a COLP nor a solicitor then the SRA should have to specifically authorise the institution as a training provider.”
The society was equally unhappy with the wording of proposed Regulation 2.2 on what eactly was being confirmed. As currently drafted, a solicitor would confirm only the length of time of the work experience and that it provided an “opportunity to develop some or all of the prescribed competencies”.
The society said in its response : “Simply confirming that the candidate has had the ‘opportunity’ to develop skills is insufficient.
“The solicitor should also be required to confirm that the work undertaken by the candidate has been rigorous enough to prepare the candidate for a career as a solicitor.
“In addition, the solicitor should confirm that the candidate has carried out work that is sufficiently wide-ranging and that it has been competently performed.”
The society said the SRA’s proposed regulations could “seriously undermine, rather than improve, the objective of the development and maintenance of high and consistent standards across the whole profession”.
The regulator’s consultation paper as a whole had “insufficient detail” and was inadequate for the task of determining stakeholders’ points of views.
For example, the society said the draft regulations implied that the SRA would have a “broad discretion” to dispense with “all academic qualifications for applicants” because of their experience, rather than the “narrow discretion” under the existing scheme.
There was an “excessive degree of uncertainty and subjectivity” in the proposals on recognition of foreign lawyers, which states that the SRA might be prepared to grant exemptions from parts of the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE).
The society said mutual recognition of lawyers’ qualifications was a “key issue”, but it was uncertain how the regime would operate after Brexit.
“We believe it is necessary to avoid making changes which could make mutual recognition of a solicitor’s title more difficult after Brexit.”
Joe Egan, president of the Law Society, said: “We want to be encouraging about the SQE, but at the moment we actually know very little about the rules governing this framework and the SRA really needs to crack on and make these public.
“We have always said we strongly support a centralised assessment set at the right level to allow the broadest range of applicants to qualify and to maintain the strong international reputation of solicitors in England and Wales.
“The SQE also must be sufficiently challenging and rigorous to maintain the global reputation of the solicitor brand.
“The Law Society will continue to emphasise the importance of ensuring not only that the new tests are developed appropriately, but also that academic and work experience requirements are subject to proper scrutiny to ensure standards.”