The Law Society has condemned plans by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) to revolutionise the training of solicitors, warning that they could “promote nepotism” and favour “wealthier students”.
In a strongly worded reaction to the unveiling of the Solicitors Qualifying Examination last week, the society said it was particularly concerned by the “removal of approved routes to qualification”.
Jonathan Smithers, president of the Law Society, said this would cause uncertainty and “most negatively affect those who have least access to good sources of information and advice”.
He went on: “This could promote nepotism and result in wealthier students being favoured especially as there may be no restrictions on the number of times an assessment could be retaken and no time restrictions on the completion of all elements.
“It is likely that these proposed changes would disproportionately affect less advantaged students because they would find it harder to gain funding for non-compulsory courses and will still need to prepare for the assessments in some way.
“It is also likely that crammer courses or other such provisions will arise, which will intensify the cost.”
Under the SRA’s plans, solicitors would no longer need to be graduates, though outgoing board member Martin Coleman told last week’s Westminster Legal Policy Forum conference on legal education and training that he expected the “vast majority” would have degrees.
The new regime could also remove the requirement for a minimum period of on-the-job training. Solicitors would need to have some workplace training, but this could be tested through ‘outcomes’ rather than time limits.
“The SRA state that their assessments will be at degree level but there will be no requirement for an underpinning course, such as the law degree or other course,” Mr Smithers said.
“A modular approach weakens the reliability of the assessments. A degree-level qualification is essential – academic rigour underpins the commercial success of the profession.”
On workplace training, Mr Smithers said: “The period of on-the-job training is important for the solicitor qualification both nationally and internationally, where our entry requirements are already viewed as ‘light touch’ due to their relative brevity.
“The suggested changes, if they are seen to devalue the current qualification, could damage the global competitiveness of UK law, especially if the standards achieved at the point of qualification are diminished.
“Although the SRA claim that entry to the profession will be at a lower cost than currently if students do not take the legal practice course, we have seen no evidence in support of this.”
He concluded: “The SRA suggest that their proposals will increase access to the profession, but they admit that this will only be the case if legal education and training providers develop training courses that are cheaper and more flexible.
“However, there is no guarantee that this will be the case as the SRA has not yet appointed a provider for their proposed assessments and therefore cannot be assured of the cost. Overall, the consultation contains disappointingly little detail on the proposed assessments.”