The regulators of solicitors and barristers have been accused of failing to collaborate closely enough on their responses to the Legal Education and Training Review (LETR), after they announced they would pursue independent strategies for ensuring competency.
At the same time, Antony Townsend, chief executive of the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), promised a “bonfire of regulations” and to encourage diverse routes to qualification.
At a forum in London on Tuesday, the SRA and the Bar Standards Board (BSB) – which with ILEX Professional Standards commissioned the wide-ranging review – were both condemned for appearing to “preserve the status quo” rather than truly working together on future plans for joint qualification.
Tom Macdonald, head of Leeds Law School, a barrister and former SRA official, told the Westminster Legal Policy Forum that the current system forced second-year undergraduate law students to decide whether to become barristers or solicitors “without being able to fully appreciate their own skills, let alone those required for the profession”.
Addressing the regulators, and in the presence of the LETR’s lead academic, Professor Julian Webb of Warwick University, who spoke earlier, Mr Macdonald continued: “One of the most exciting things about LETR was that it was a joint review, with all three regulators. What concerns me… is that already you are diverging again – you are looking at competency frameworks on your own and in isolation.
“In my view there are certain shared competencies which… should be leading towards students being able to continue on the same route and making decisions as to whether they are going to become a solicitor or barrister much later.”
He advised that the regulators should be agreeing a competency framework in the same room, “not telling each other about decisions they’ve made after they’ve made them”. To general applause, he warned that: “Collaboration by name only… isn’t – it’s a three-year game of ‘to me to you to me to you’.”
The final LETR report was published in June and made core recommendations for reforms that included moving towards the harmonisation of ‘day one’ outcomes – those standards trainees should meet at the point of qualification – and levels of qualification across the various arms of the legal profession.
Allan Murray-Jones, a partner at global law firm Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom and a member of the City of London Law Society’s training committee, said that in his opinion, making law students take such an early decision on their futures was “an utter abomination”.
The BSB’s head of education and training, Simon Thornton-Wood, said Mr Macdonald had presented “an absolutely fair challenge” but insisted that barristers started “in a different place to solicitors”. However, he pledged that “the destination is unequivocally the same and the route has got to converge”.
Mr Townsend agreed, saying “the danger of serious divergence is actually small”.
He announced that later this month the authority would consult on an “ambitious programme” that would “strip away the layers of regulation which neither assure quality nor enable excellence”.
He continued: “A one-size-fits-all approach to qualifying as a solicitor, in a market where one size actually fits very few, needs to be scrapped.
“We want to enable a diversity of routes to qualification based on what skills and knowledge solicitors need to have from the first day of qualifying.
“We think it should be for higher education institutions, vocational training providers and employers to come up with effective routes that achieve the outcomes we set.”
Around the end of this year, the SRA would have “a bonfire of education and training regulations”.
On continuing professional development (CPD), he said the current “tick box” system must be replaced by “a strategy for ensuring continuing competence”. But he agreed with the LETR’s conclusion that CPD should not be replaced with full-scale revalidation.
A “fundamental review” of CPD was underway and the question was “how far a system of assuring continuing competence needs to go beyond CPD”. Possible solutions could include “risk-based, targeted audit or targeted re-accreditation”.
Mr Townsend concluded: “the outcome will be… finalised proposals before the end of next year from which our ambitious programme of reform can be implemented. Our aim is to move from being a regulator which unnecessarily influences the structure of education and training to a system where there is a greater variety, choice and flexibility, to meet the challenges of the sector not just today but in the future.
“We’ve already started fieldwork with a sample of lawyers and law firms and consumers, to produce by the middle of next year a competence framework specifying the knowledge skills and attributes required on qualification.”