The Legal Services Board (LSB) has come under unprecedented pressure to reject plans by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) to introduce a centralised Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE).
City lawyers, law lecturers and Welsh speakers have called on the LSB not to approve the SRA’s application, while MPs on the justice select committee asked for the decision to be postponed for six months.
The LSB has already postponed its decision twice, from the beginning of February this year to early this month and now to the middle of April, although it is not unusual for the oversight regulator to use the full 90 days it has to decide on a rule change when it is controversial.
In its latest decision notice, the LSB said it needed to consider “additional correspondence”.
In a letter to the LSB, Bob Neill MP, chair of the justice committee, linked the SQE to Brexit, stressing “the need to avoid any possible new reputational risk to the legal profession at this critical time”.
Mr Neill said there were “fears that the SQE framework in its current form would lead to England and Wales becoming the only jurisdiction that does not require substantive academic study of law as a precursor to qualifying as a lawyer”.
He said that if the new regime did not contain “sufficient safeguards”, it “may risk damaging the reputation of our legal profession and, ultimately, of the UK as a legal jurisdiction of choice”.
The training committee of the City London Law Society (CLLS) launched an all-out attack on the SQE, saying that the SRA had “neither demonstrated that the current system is so flawed it needs a complete overhaul nor that the new framework is superior”.
The CLLS said it was a “high-risk strategy” for the regulator “to embark on a qualification framework which has no parallel elsewhere and moves us further away from the requirements seen in other well-respected jurisdictions without demonstrative compensatory benefits”.
The CLLS argued that by focusing mainly on the reserved activities, the proposed SQE syllabus omitted many “vital topics” from the existing combination of a law degree/graduate diploma in law (GDL) plus legal practice course, including those needed by corporate lawyers.
“The result will be a qualification with a narrower knowledge base which is significantly less relevant for many solicitors qualifying in the future.
“We know of no other regulator in the UK or elsewhere reducing the practical relevance of the training and education which it is assessing as part of a proposed qualification. As such the SQE represents a step back and a missed opportunity to future-proof the profession.”
Describing the SRA’s application as “premature”, the CLLS called on the LSB not to approve it in its current form.
Law lecturers strongly criticised move, as they have done consistently since detailed proposals were launched in 2016.
In a joint letter, the Association of Law Teachers, Committee of Heads of University Law Schools, Society of Legal Scholars and Socio-Legal Studies Association said a “fundamental flaw” was the absence of a regulatory requirement for either a law degree or GDL.
The academics said it was “wholly implausible” that the SQE could provide “anything like the same level of assurance of the knowledge of the foundation subjects and analytical legal skills”.
They concluded: “To design a whole new system to deal with the supposed unreliability of degree standards, creating the other more serious problems that we have identified, would be a mistake.”
Instead they proposed retaining the academic stage and introducing a centralised test of professional knowledge and skills at the point of qualification.
Meanwhile, leading supporters of the Welsh language registered their concerns that the option to be assessed in Welsh would no longer be mandatory to would-be solicitors.
Meri Huws, the Welsh Language Commissioner, said he did not want to see any reduction in the commitments to the Welsh language made in the SRA’s existing training regulations.
His concerns were echoed by Law Society council member for South Wales and law lecturer David Dixon, who described requiring candidates whose first language was Welsh to take the SQE in English as “contrary to the rule of law”.
The mildest objection to the SQE came from the Law Society itself, which called only for the LSB to grant “conditional or indicative approval” of the SRA’s plans, final approval being given only when more detailed data was provided, particularly on diversity.
“We believe that the equality and diversity effects of the SQE cannot be predicted until there is more certainty over the cost, content, format of the exams, the administrative arrangements for them (including adjustments to be made for candidates with disabilities), and clarity over whether candidates from disadvantaged backgrounds will be able to access funding for courses to prepare for these exams.”