The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has pledged to undertake a “radical review of the skills and knowledge required to merit qualification as a solicitor” as part of its response to the findings of the Legal Education and Training Review research report, which was published today.
It will also investigate assuring continuing competence, enabling greater flexibility in the delivery of education and training, and improving access, equality of opportunity and diversity.
The work on the skills and competences required by solicitors at the point of qualification will act as the starting point from which the SRA will consider what regulatory requirements it needs to put in place to have confidence that individuals seeking the title of solicitor are competent to receive it.
Pointing out that the report is the starting point “rather than the final product”, SRA chairman Charles Plant told Legal Futures that its work following on from the LETR is at the top of his priority list, with a particular focus on removing regulatory restrictions on training flexibility. “I want to see these recommendations being implemented as soon as possible,” he said.
He strongly backed non-graduate routes to becoming a solicitor – noting that two of the last three senior partners of his old firm, City firm Herbert Smith, had qualified through the old non-graduate ‘five-year articles’ route – and said that despite the lack of enthusiasm in the report for common training of solicitors and barristers, he wanted to explore it further.
Mr Plant added that the SRA had three “overarching aims”: that clients and the public should have the highest confidence in the quality and integrity of legal services; that organisations providing legal services should be able to employ lawyers with the skills needed to deliver those services; and that people with the ability to practise law, whatever their background, should be able to obtain the education and training they need in a way which encourages excellence and diversity.
Dr Vanessa Davies, director of the Bar Standards Board, said: “The report identifies plenty of challenges for the future. I am pleased, nevertheless, that it recognises that the current system provides a good standard of education and training upon which to build. I also welcome its recognition of the need for professional ethics to be at the core of legal education.
“The next step is for the Bar Standards Board to consider the recommendations more fully. This extensive report provides us with some invaluable insights on which to base our decision-making as to how we carry out our regulatory duties in the public interest in the future.”
The report’s other commissioning regulator, ILEX Professional Standards (IPS), said it was “satisfied” with the report, which it said recommends the wider adoption of much of the practice it already adopts, such as its new work-based learning and CPD schemes.
IPS chairman Alan Kershaw said: “Our key ambitions for the review related to diversity: not just that opportunities for entry to the profession would be supported and enhanced, but that alternative routes to qualification would be recognised, giving those who achieve comparable standards comparable opportunities for their careers.
“I am delighted that the report clearly highlights the many benefits of the CILEx routes to qualification as a lawyer. These include the focus on fields of competence, which must be in the interests of consumers; and affordability, which not only helps individual aspiring practitioners but also increases the social mix within the profession – a critical consideration for us and for the review team.”
However, Elisabeth Davies, chair of the Legal Services Consumer Panel, described the report as a missed opportunity. “There’s much in this report that the panel has previously called for and welcomes – for example, that lawyers’ training include a greater emphasis on ethics, client care skills and diversity; revamping CPD; making voluntary quality schemes more robust; and ongoing consumer representation as the review is taken forward,” she said.
“Overall this is a missed opportunity to redesign legal education and training around the needs of consumers. Introducing periodic reaccreditation in high risk areas of law is the single biggest thing the review could have done to bolster consumer confidence in the quality of legal work, so we’re greatly disappointed this is missing from the proposals.
“After a long fight reaccreditation was introduced in medicine to benefit patients, but sadly it’s been rejected in law because surveys of practitioners show they don’t want it.
“Today’s report is an important staging post in an ongoing process to reform lawyers’ training so it is suitable for the modern market. We welcome the recognition that the consumer voice needs to be heard loud and clear as the regulators take this work forward. They must remember that the ultimate purpose of this system is to safeguard quality for consumers and the public – decisions about regulation must put these interests first.”
The president of the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEx), Nick Hanning, will give his reaction the report in a speech on Thursday, but is likely to challenge the report for its muddled approach to licensing paralegals.
He is expected to say: “The proposed certification/licensing scheme has all the hallmarks of an expensive regime without the guaranteed quality assurance the public would expect from such a scheme. The report fails to recognise CILEx represents around 12,500 paralegals, the largest number of regulated paralegals in the UK, whom consumers can rely on. They are held to the same professional and ethical standards as lawyers, with access to development, qualifications, and a diverse choice of career destinations.”
It is also anticipated that he will question the idea of a Legal Education Council, saying: “Whilst at first this looks like a ‘nice to have’ idea, with further consideration I fear this will turn out to cost too much, increase the burden of regulation, and remove regulatory responsibility from where it belongs – with CILEx and IPS.”