The Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) – the new way that solicitors will qualify – will be launched in autumn 2021, with the candidate fee likely to range between £3,000 and £4,500.
The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) had previously proposed a launch date of no earlier than autumn 2020, and speaking to the media yesterday, head of education Julie Brannon said that the regulator and Kaplan – its chosen provider – would have been ready by then.
But she said: “We have responded to pretty strong feedback from firms and universities that they felt they needed more time to prepare their courses and adjust their recruitment and training strategies to take into account the SQE.”
Under the new regime, there will be four elements to qualification: a degree or equivalent Level 6 qualification, passing the SRA’s character and suitability test, passing SQE 1 – which will primarily test the application of legal knowledge – and SQE 2, testing practical legal skills
The provisional fee range for the examinations – which Ms Brannon stressed were just a “best guess” at the moment ahead of piloting next year – were put at £1,100-£1,650 for SQE 1, and £1,900-£2,850 for SQE 2.
The costs are based on an estimated 35 hours of assessment, including written tests, computer-based assessments and simulations such as mock client interviews.
The SRA said that factors that could change the costs include the length and amount of assessment and whether it was offered in both English and Welsh.
Kaplan will be running a pilot of SQE 1 in March 2019 to test the effectiveness of the assessment, for which recruitment will begin this month. It is looking ideally for students currently on the legal practice course.
Ms Brannan explained that, following a “technical review” of the current design of SQE 1, Kaplan said the assessment could be shorter than originally proposed and still be an “effective way to sample the full curriculum”.
Its pilot of SQE 1 will include 360 questions split equally across three separate examination papers, instead of 680 questions split over six papers.
The three assessment will cover: company/commercial, dispute resolution, contract and tort; property law and practice, wills and the administration of estates, equity and trust, and solicitors accounts; and criminal law and practice, public and administrative law, EU law and the legal systems of England and Wales.
Ethics will pervade throughout the course and candidates will have to take all three – despite some requests, it will not be modular.
Ms Brannan stressed that the SQE should be set at the minimum level for the SRA to be “confident that people are safe to practise”. She added: “We can’t justify having an over-assessment of candidates.”
SRA chief executive Paul Philip added: “Our priority is creating a rigorous, value-for-money assessment that drives consistent high standards. The SQE also offers a fresh opportunity to increase access to the profession.
“A competitive training market, offering real choices, will help the profession attract the best talent.”
Ms Brannan said she expected the market to deliver a variety of training courses at different prices. Some universities would incorporate SQE 1 into their law degrees, she said, making qualification cheaper, while those qualifying through solicitor apprenticeships would have their training and assessment costs covered by the apprenticeship levy.
The SRA estimates that the overall cost of training, including assessment costs, could range from around £5,000 to £10,000 – significantly less than the legal practice course.
The SQE launch date means that people who have started a qualifying law degree or law conversion before September 2021 will be able to decide to qualify under the old system up until 2032, or alternatively under the SQE.
Speaking at a Westminster Legal Policy Forum event on training in London this morning, Chris Nichols, director of policy at the Legal Services Board, stressed that the oversight regulator had so far only approved the overall framework of the new regime.
He said the SRA’s next application, which will be to approve the full package, would have to satisfy concerns expressed to the LSB previously about the quality of the assessments, their availability in Welsh, the cost and accessibility of assessments, and the equality and diversity implications, including the risk of it creating a ‘two-tier’ profession.
At the same event, Ms Brannan said the SQE would be rigorously assessed and the SRA would be transparent about its findings. “I’m sure we won’t get everything right and we will have to make changes,” she said.
The SRA has also launched a Facebook page Career in Law  to inform aspiring solicitors about the SQE changes. It has been developed “through working closely with young people, including college and university students”, the regulator said.