SAL’s response to the SRA Consultation on the SQE

A new route to qualification: Solicitors Qualifying Examination Consultation Response from Society of Asian Lawyers

1. Introduction

In October 2016, the Solicitors Regulatory Authority (“SRA”) issued a consultation paper with respect to its proposed plan to introduce the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (“SQE”), together with associated reforms relating to the route to qualification for aspiring lawyers. This document represents a response to that consultation paper, sent on behalf of the Society of Asian Lawyers (“SAL”).

SAL is an organisation consisting of approximately 2,500 members, comprising current and aspiring lawyers, from virtually all areas of the legal profession. A proportion (indeed an increasing proportion) of our membership consists of students, who are likely to be directly affected by the SQE and associated reforms. Other elements of our membership, although already qualified, are equally interested in the SQE and the impact it could have on aspiring lawyers of Asian heritage.

Although not a trade union, SAL aims to represent its members on issues which may affect the legal profession. It is in that overall context that we are providing this response to the SRA consultation. SAL was particularly minded to submit a response to the SRA consultation, in circumstances where the consultation paper expressly provides that the SRA “believe that our proposals could promote fairer access” (at para 141, p. 28). This response contains, amongst other things, our view on whether that belief is well held and supported.

The implementation of the SQE presents, in a neutral sense, issues which are of general interest to the legal profession, including the Asian proportion of the profession. We have sought, in this response, not to discuss in detail issues which are of general interest to the profession. We have sought, instead, to focus primarily on the equality and diversity elements of the SQE proposal and to evaluate whether, in fact, the SQE is likely to have any unique or specific impact on aspiring Asian lawyers.

We are very pleased to be providing this consultation response – and we would be delighted to provide a further and more detailed response if so requested by the SRA. Our response is structured in two principal sections below:

* Section 2 contains an overview of the SQE.

* Section 3 contains our principal thoughts and conclusions.

2. Overview of SQE

As far as we understand it, the SQE is part of an overhauled process for aspiring lawyers to achieve qualification in England and Wales. The process as a whole comprises:

  • Degree: A requirement that individuals hold a degree, apprenticeship or equivalent.
  • SQE: A requirement that individuals pass stages 1 and 2 of the SQE.
  • Workplace Training: A requirement that individuals undertake a requisite period of workplace training (with the means of obtaining that training broader than the current “training contract” model).
  • Character Suitability: A requirement that individuals meet the SRA’s character and suitability requirements.

The SQE, at stage 1, tests functional legal knowledge and practical legal skills, limited to legal research and training. At stage 2, the SQE tests a broader range of practical legal skills, including client interviewing and case and matter analysis.

In overall terms, the new qualification process is fundamentally different from the current process of obtaining qualification in (at least) two central ways:

  • First, the SQE is a single, centralised, assessment; in contrast to the current system where different LPC providers set a disparate and non-uniform set of assessments for their students.
  • Second, the workplace training requirement is intended to be broader and more flexible than the current system, which relies (in the majority of cases) on the attainment and completion of a training contract. Under the new system, “working in a student law clinic, as an apprentice or a paralegal, or through a placement as part of a sandwich degree could all contribute to this requirement” (para. 23).

The rationale behind the proposal is set out in detail in the consultation paper. In summary, the proposal seeks to ensure consistency and high quality, as well as remove the “training contract bottleneck” which is currently a “major constraint on new entrants to the profession” (para. 34).

Within the “case for change” section of the consultation paper, the SRA states that “the qualification regime should provide sufficient flexibility to encourage diversity within the profession”. We note however, that the SRA falls short (at para. 42) of stating that the SQE and associated changes “would” have any impact on equality and diversity. Rather, the impact on diversity is expressed in decidedly weaker language in paras. 141 et. seq., in the following terms:

“While we recognise that the SQE cannot solve wider issues of social justice, we believe that our proposals could promote fairer access. We also believe that a competitive diverse profession helps to enhance professional standards”.

We were interested to read, at para. 143, the responses to the equality, diversity and inclusivity assessment that the SRA conducted as part of its first consultation on the SQE. We were equally interested to read, at para. 146, that the SRA intends to conduct a “further piece of research on impact during the consultation period and will publish a final Equality Impact Assessment, which will take into account comments received from the consultation itself, at the end of the consultation when we publish our response”. We would be interested to receive and consider the results of the Equality Impact Assessment, as and when completed. We consider these matters further in section 3 below.

3. Principal Conclusions

SAL circulated a message to its members, inviting thoughts on the SQE and the SRA’s proposed reforms in general. A number of members of the SAL committee have also considered the reforms. Our principal conclusions are as follows:

  • The SRA has stopped short of expressly stating that the SQE and associated reforms would improve diversity in the legal profession. From the perspective of aspiring Asian lawyers, we would agree with that assessment. We too would stop short of concluding that the proposed reforms would definitively improve the chances of aspiring Asian lawyers, as distinct from any other body of aspiring lawyers, of entering the profession.
  • Equally, we do not believe that the SQE and associated reforms would have a detrimental impact on the prospects of aspiring Asian lawyers entering the profession, as distinct from any other body of aspiring lawyers. We do not consider that the issues raised in para. 143 of the consultation paper are distinctly applicable to aspiring Asian lawyers – and, accordingly, we do not believe that aspiring Asian lawyers, specifically, will be adversely affected by the proposed reforms.
  • The SRA has concluded that the SQE and associated reforms “could”, in summary, improve diversity. We would agree with that assessment. Although we do not have definitive statistics currently available to us, a number of aspiring Asian lawyers have practical legal experience (in paralegal positions and otherwise), but are unable to qualify due to the absence of a training contract. The SRA’s new regime may result in these aspiring lawyers qualifying more easily as lawyers. We would emphasise that this “bottleneck” is not necessarily specific to Asian lawyers – indeed we have seen no evidence to that effect – but the SRA’s proposed reforms may result in more Asian lawyers entering the profession than under the current system.
  • Aside from ethnic diversity, which is the principal focus of this response, other feedback we have received as a result of our message to members is as follows:

o Standards: “The SQE is a good thing and will improve standards in the industry”.

o Equality: “If the exam will allow people from a non financially stable background to enter into the profession of solicitors more easily then it should be encouraged. It may help to increase diversity as well as the LPC gamble.”

We trust this brief response is helpful in setting out our principal thoughts on the SQE and associated reforms. We would be delighted to provide further comments, if necessary and helpful.

SAL Committee

9 January 2017

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