Would-be solicitors may be able to design their own routes to qualification – which need not involve a degree, legal practice course or training contract – under a blueprint for radical reform of education and training published tomorrow by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA).
The regulator will even consider whether or not a generic solicitors’ qualification is still appropriate “given the range of environments within which solicitors now work and the increasing trend for specialisation early in an individual’s career”.
The ‘Training for tomorrow’ policy statement marks the start of the SRA’s response to the findings of the Legal Education and Training Review.
It plots a move away from a system where the SRA prescribes the pathways to qualification to one in which it sets the ‘day one’ skills, knowledge and attributes that a new solicitor must possess, and permits much greater flexibility in how those competencies are acquired.
The statement recognised that a set of so-called ‘day one outcomes’ was put in place following the last major review of education and training, but said their construction, “through aggregation of the outputs of the current stages of training rather than empirical research, ultimately limited their fitness for purpose”.
It added: “Moreover, we did not follow through with the changes to our approach to regulating education and training to realise the benefits of an outcomes-based model. As a result, we still have in place a detailed and prescriptive regulatory framework for education and training that inhibits flexibility, creates unnecessary barriers for some individuals seeking to qualify through it, requires resources to undertake activities that do not provide any real assurance about the level of competence of individuals within the system, and is not explicitly linked to the day one outcomes.”
These will be replaced by a new competence framework that will not be a redrafting of the current outcomes. “Instead, we will look at what is actually required of a newly qualified solicitor in practice,” it said.
The SRA said it will “consider carefully” to what extent it then needs to prescribe the content and structure of the various stages of qualification to meet these outcomes – if at all.
The statement said: “If we are clear about the outcome to be demonstrated at the point of qualification and target our regulatory resources on putting in place appropriate mechanisms for assessing whether that outcome has been met, there may not be a need for us to specify, or even recognise, pathways to qualification.”
Though the SRA will look at whether the generic solicitors’ qualification is still appropriate, the indication in the paper is that it is.
“We anticipate that most if not all stakeholders would agree that there are a number of common attributes of solicitors regardless of their area of specialisation – ethics, independence, legal reasoning, respect for and understanding of the rule of law. We also recognise the benefits to business and individual consumers of legal services and the public interest in ensuring that solicitors uphold common standards and values.
“But widening specialisation requires further consideration of common attributes and how far the day-one outcomes and continuing training obligations should be focused on the specific roles undertaken (or likely to be undertaken) by a solicitor.”
A key element of the shake-up will be a rethink of continuing professional development, which will move from a “discredited tick-box approach” to an outcomes-based focus on continuing competence.It will be in large part the obligation of individuals, in conjunction with their firm, to tailor professional development to reflect their particular needs, leaving the regulator to prescribe only where there are identified and significant threats to the public interest.
The SRA will also consider whether there is a public interest case for a more formal system for reviewing continuing competence, as recommended by the Legal Services Consumer Panel but rejected by the LETR.
The role of firms and other entities that employ solicitors in ensuring effective CPD will be investigated at a later date, as will be the SRA’s regulatory role in respect of paralegals. But the SRA said that “individual regulation of paralegals is not an objective for us at this point”.
The third limb of the blueprint will see the removal of unnecessary regulatory restrictions – such as requiring all students to enrol with the SRA before they start the legal practice course. The purpose of this is to permit an early check on students’ suitability to enter the profession, but fewer than 1% of students flag a suitability issue. “We will propose a more targeted and efficient way of achieving this aim.”
The SRA will publish a consultation on removing unnecessary regulations in the next three months or so, one on the new scheme of continuing competence early in 2014 and one on the competence framework in mid-2014.
The statement gave no solid date for implementing the changes to the qualification, but the current qualification structure will continue to be available until at least the end of the 2017/18 academic year.