The Legal Services Board (LSB) has approved an initial application by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) to introduce the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE).
Despite intense pressure from City lawyers, law lecturers and MPs on the justice select committee, LSB chief executive Neil Buckley said there were “no grounds” to reject the SRA’s application, setting out the framework for the regime.
The SQE, which will not come in before September 2020, will involve a single common assessment which replaces the multiple courses and examinations under the current regime.
However, Mr Buckley made it clear approval of the application was on its own “not sufficient to allow the SQE to be implemented” and a further application for rule changes would need to be made.
In its decision notice published today, the LSB rejected complaints about removing the requirement for the academic study of law.
The LSB said it was satisfied with the justification provided by the SRA in response to concerns about “less depth of knowledge”, including the argument that the SRA’s obligation to ensure regulation was proportionate meant it could not justify requiring candidates to “take a course of study that would teach them more, or require them to study for longer”.
The LSB added that it “did not consider that there was sufficient evidence of any likely detriment to the regulatory objectives resulting from removing the requirement to complete academic study of law”.
On the international competitiveness of the legal profession in England and Wales, which the City of London Law Society argued most strongly would be damaged by the SQE, the LSB said education and training was only “one factor” contributing to the profession’s standing.
“The LSB concluded that there is no evidence to suggest that a negative impact on the international competitiveness of the England and Wales legal profession is likely to result from the removal of the requirement for prescribed academic study of law.
“Whilst it could not be ruled out, the residual risk was not considered sufficient for this to be a ground for refusing the application, especially when balanced against the wider positive impacts on the regulatory objectives that the SRA is seeking to achieve through the changes.”
The LSB said the lack of information on cost was equally no reason to refuse the application, since the SRA would be able to provide detailed information at a later stage.
The oversight regulator said it was most concerned about the ability of a course provider to use the SQE “trade mark” where another agency had found misconduct, such as mispresenting pass marks.
“The LSB is concerned about the potential consequences for students if the SRA were to take no action to revoke a licence in circumstances where another regulator had found substantiated concerns about a training provider’s conduct.
“The assurance provided by the SRA in this regard was not sufficient to fully mitigate the LSB’s concern.”
The LSB said concerns about the quality of the proposed SQE assessment were “out of scope” of the current application, as were those about the position of the Welsh language.
Mr Buckley said: “We have today agreed the first stage of the SRA’s reforms to its qualification processes. The changes that the SRA wishes to make are significant and stakeholders have identified a range of associated risks.
“We assessed the current approved application thoroughly with these risks in mind and concluded that there are no grounds for refusing this application.
“The approval of this application on its own is not sufficient to allow the SQE to be implemented.
“The SRA will need to make and we will need to approve further rules changes to give effect to the requirement to pass a centralised exam.
“When considering these further rules and deciding whether to agree with them, the LSB will expect to see more detail from the SRA – particularly on how the SQE will operate, what it will cost and the likely diversity impacts.”
SRA chief executive Paul Philip said: “Confirmation that we can press ahead with the development of the SQE gives employers and education providers the surety they need to plan fully for its introduction.
“Law firms and academic institutions can now design approaches to recruitment and training which reflect their specific needs.
“The removal of regulation on potential routes to qualifying, including the QLD, GDL or LPC requirement, will provide opportunities for people from every walk of life to consider a career as a solicitor, while the introduction of qualifying work experience should address the current training contract bottleneck.”
Law Society president Joe Egan said: “At this point we only have a high-level outline of the SQE – the devil is in the detail.
“We are pleased to see the LSB has noted our concerns around the deep uncertainty regarding equality and diversity. In future, the SRA will be required to provide further evidence on how diversity risks are being mitigated.”