The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has issued a strong denial that it has already made up its mind over how it will assess the competence of would-be solicitors, after the Law Society suggested that it had.
In April the SRA launched its ‘competence statement’, which sets the standard for practice as a solicitor and also lays out what intending solicitors will be assessed on in order to qualify.
The regulator is now developing a new assessment framework for admission and has previously said that it is looking at three approaches to this.
The first would continue much as now, with the SRA authorising education and training providers to teach and assess specified pathways to qualification, against the requirements of the statement.
With the second, providers would apply for authorisation from the SRA to teach and assess pathways which it would not specify. The third option would see the introduction of a new professional assessment for all intending solicitors, regardless of the pathway they have followed.
A full consultation, with the aim of introducing the framework from the 2018/19 academic year, is due in December.
But in a pre-emptive strike, the Law Society issued a paper last week that said it was concerned about “the intention by the regulator… to focus on one single preferred option for training to become a solicitor, without having consulted with the profession”, namely the third option.
Chancery Lane said it was “deeply concerned that the SRA has already stated its preference for option 3. This route would involve a series of centralised assessments for knowledge and skills… There would be no approved pathways to entry and no required courses – no qualifying law degree, no legal practice course and no training contract would be required”.
Further, it said the SRA’s thinking was that “there would be no restrictions on the number of times an assessment could be retaken and there would be no time restrictions on the completion of all elements”. The society complained this could lead to students ‘banking’ elements “which they may have no familiarity with by the time they finally manage to qualify”.
The society said it had been moved to raise public concerns “prompted by the strength of feeling among solicitors”.
The fact an equality impact assessment had not already been completed was “unacceptable”, the society said. Unlike current undergraduate education which helped level the field for disadvantaged students, option 3 would “discriminate against many students whose education and training up to the point of entry at university is deficient in both the educational skills and life experiences required to compete in a graduate market”.
However, the society stressed that it supported “a clear standard of entry to the profession… and a degree of centralised assessment to support this”.
In a statement to Legal Futures, the SRA’s executive director for policy, Crispin Passmore, said: “We have spoken to lots of people about the three options we have identified and received lots of views. We are testing a particular model, but no decisions have yet been taken.
“We will be formally consulting on a new assessment framework in December, and this will be accompanied by an equality impact assessment, something we promised back in March. However, we do warmly welcome the Law Society’s support for centralised assessment.”
Law Society president Jonathan Smithers said: “It is simply not appropriate for the regulator to narrow the range of options on the basis of their own preference, having merely conducted a cursory and informal engagement exercise.”
An SRA spokesman added the regulator had simply been “gathering information ahead of time” up to now, including “a series of meetings, focus groups and conferences with a wide range of stakeholders”. Further events were planned for later this month and next month.