The minimum salary for trainee solicitors will be scrapped on 1 August 2014, the board of the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) decided yesterday, saying it is not the job of a regulator to control wages.
Firms will be required to adhere to the national minimum wage of £6.08 an hour, meaning at least £12,646 a year for a 40-hour working week. The current minimum is £18,590 for central London and £16,650 elsewhere.
The board was unanimous that the minimum should come to an end, noting that it is the only regulator that sets a salary above the national minimum wage. This meant the only debate was about the timing. There was strong support for deferring it for two years to minimise the impact on individuals already within the training system and allow those seeking to qualify to plan and make career choices based on knowledge of the future situation.
The SRA’s consultation over the change highlighted real strength of feeling that scrapping the minimum will have a negative impact on access to the profession and diversity, with women and those from black and minority ethnic backgrounds – who are more likely to work at firms which pay the minimum – particularly affected.
While board members said they recognised the argument, they insisted a minimum salary is not the way to address diversity issues. Solicitor member Martin Coleman said that if salaries are so linked to diversity, then the SRA should be setting salary levels for qualified solicitors too, which showed how impractical this approach was.
Instead the focus should be on opening up new pathways into practice, such as work-based learning, members said. Solicitor member Lucy Winskell, a one-time chair of the Young Solicitors Group, said she was persuaded by the economic and equality impact assessment , which indicated that firms would consider taking on more trainees, or recruit for the first time, if the minimum were scrapped.
SRA chairman Charles Plant said: “I would hope that the Law Society and SRA can work together to do whatever they can to persuade firms, particularly small firms, to take on trainees.”
Solicitor members Malcolm Nicholson and Tom Keevil added it is for the Law Society as the representative body to issue guidance to law firms on paying higher salaries to trainees.
A Law Society spokesman said: “The Law Society was concerned that the result of this decision will be that trainees who will be offered the reduced minimum salary, who are likely already to have substantial debts, will find themselves in significant financial difficulty and forced to take on other work which will distract them from giving full attention to the training contract.
“Alternatively, those trainees who have private means will receive an undue advantage over potentially more meritorious candidates. Neither result will be good for the diversity of the profession. These views were supported by the SRA’s own equalities impact assessment and we are surprised and disappointed that the SRA did not place greater weight on its findings. We will be monitoring the effects of the decision closely.”