The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has bowed to fierce opposition from universities and law schools, and put its plans to introduce a centralised assessment test for future solicitors on hold.
The SRA board was due to make a decision in principle on whether to go ahead with the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) at its meeting yesterday, but instead announced a further consultation, with no decision before spring 2017.
Crispin Passmore, executive director of policy at the SRA, told journalists that although he believed there was still a “strong case” for the SQE, it would not be introduced before the academic year beginning in autumn 2019 “at the earliest”.
Mr Passmore went on: “It won’t be implemented until it’s ready. If it’s never ready, it will never be implemented. I can’t say there will be an SQE, but there is still a strong case for that going forwards. The case for change remains.
“With all of the routes into the profession, with different sorts of institutions giving qualifications, how do we ensure consistency? We’re not confident at the moment about that.”
Mr Passmore said of around 250 responses to its first consultation on SQE, launched in December, 50 were “wholly positive”, compared to 100 which were “wholly negative”. He said the remainder were “not keen” on the specific proposals but believed it could be a “good way forward”.
Mr Passmore said although the Law Society was “broadly supportive” of SQE, “the most consistent opposition” from came from “academics and universities with a stake in the law degree”.
He added that a second, “much more detailed” consultation about SQE would be launched, probably in the autumn. He said there would be a work-based element, but no decision on the length of the new training contract.
“This is about higher standards – this is not about reducing them in any way, shape or form. We want everyone to be clear that anyone with the solicitor title is good enough to have that title. The thing that would give and maintain credibility would be a tough centralised assessment.”
Paul Philip, chief executive of the SRA, warned in March that there would be a second consultation on SQE later this year and a rethink on plans to abolish the minimum period of workplace training required by future solicitors.
In a statement on the delay, he said: “I think the case for a form of centralised assessment is strong. It addresses the problem that, currently, qualifications are not comparable – multiple courses and exams mean that standards can vary significantly and there is a lack of transparency.
“Any new assessment needs to be fair and consistent and ensure that new solicitors can meet the high standards that the public and employers expect. It is important that we do not rush any change. Our priority is getting this right.”
Helen Hudson, head of postgraduate professional courses at Nottingham Law School, said: “We are pleased to see the SRA listening to the profession and pausing fully to consider the way forward. Whilst we have no fundamental objection to centralised assessment, our concerns focus on the potentially negative impact upon widening access and the need to maintain academic rigour.
“We welcome the opportunity for further consultation based on a more detailed outline of how the SQE would work and the development of a clear assessment framework. It is vital that changes to qualification routes are fit for purpose for both students and practice.”