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Continuing Competence Guidance - FAQs

Last updated: 19 July 2018

The following FAQs provide useful information to solicitors on complying with the Solicitors Regulation Authority's (SRA) scheme for continuing competence.

 

What is continuing competence?

Continuing competence is the SRA's system of assuring competence. It relates to the Competence Statement for Solicitors released on 1 April 2015.

As the competence statement is generic and applies to all solicitors, a threshold standard has been developed to set out the level at which the competencies in the Competence Statement should be performed upon qualification as a solicitor, and is the level of competence required for ongoing practice.

Level three is the threshold standard required at the point of qualification; the other levels are provided for context. Level three is also the standard against which solicitors can measure their competence as practitioners. This therefore represents the minimum standards for competence.

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How is this different from Continuing Professional Development (CPD)?

On 1 November 2016, continuing competence replaced continuing professional development (CPD). CPD was an inputs-based system whereby a certain number of completed hours ensured compliance. Continuing competence is instead an outputs-based system, where it is the process and effect of learning activities that is of importance. For instance, the profession has told us that it is of more benefit to spend one hour reading a targeted journal that improves your legal knowledge of your practice area than it is to spend 7 hours at a course which relates only tentatively to your area, because you are trying to fulfil a requirement.

Under the continuing competence system, there is no requirement to attend courses or learning by approved providers and, as such, there are no approved providers of CPD courses. There is also no requirement for the completion of a certain number of hours or specific allowed activities. Any activity that has been undertaken to address learning needs can count towards your continuing competence.

Instead, solicitors are expected to review their learning needs and address them through CPD activities. They are then asked to reflect on the learning and look at ways they can incorporate this into their practice. This should, in turn, lead to a further review of any other learning needs.

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Who must comply with the new continuing competence scheme?

Any solicitor with a practising certificate, wherever in the world they practice and whether or not they are practising English law, is expected to comply with the continuing competence scheme. This includes retired solicitors who maintain a practising certificate, registered European lawyers (RELs) but not registered foreign lawyers (RFLs).

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What do I need to do?

The SRA has set out in their guidance the process they expect solicitors to undertake. You will need to:

  • Reflect on your practice to identify any learning needs. You may wish to refer to the Competence Statement when doing this. It is important to remember that the Competence Statement is generic, and you will need to apply it to your particular practice.
  • Plan how you will address your learning needs, identifying suitable learning activities and how you will carry them out.
  • Complete the learning activities.
  • Evaluate how the learning activity has met the learning need you identified and how you can incorporate the new knowledge and skills into your practice.
  • Record how you have carried out this process. The record demonstrates that you have taken steps to ensure your ongoing competence. You may wish to use the forms that the SRA has made available through its online toolkit.
  • Make an annual declaration to confirm that you have completed the process outlined above. The wording for the annual declaration is available via the SRA's online toolkit.

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What is a learning need and how do I identify it?

A learning need is where you have identified a gap in, or a need to update, your knowledge and skills in a cetain area. This could be a result of changes to that area, or perhaps where you are working in a new area.

You identify these learning needs by reflecting on your practice and any gaps that may have become apparent during your day-to-day activities. You may also be a member of various schemes or groups associated with your area of practice who may prompt you at regular intervals to update your knowledge and skills.

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Can learning needs be identified by others?

Yes, it may be that someone within your organisation can assign you training or identify a learning need for you. Examples of this may be where regular ethics training, or update training on a specific area across your organisation is required, or where a supervisor or manager identifies a need for you.

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Can I discuss my reflections and learning needs with others?

Of course, it would be very useful to discuss identified learning needs and other reflections with colleagues as it may be that they share the same need or could alternatively address the learning need for you. This process is all about engaging with ongoing learning and development, and disucssions with colleagues is one way of doing this.

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What will I need to give to the SRA?

You will need to make an annual declaration. The declaration you make will be for the currrent practice year that is ending. The wording for this is:

'I have reflected on my practice and addressed any identified learning and development needs.'

The declaration can be made using the Practising Certificate Renewal Exercise (PCRE) forms: RF1RB, RF1RSP, RF1NRE and RF3R. You may make the annual declaration on your own behalf as an individual solicitor. Alternatively, entities who complete the PCRE on behalf of the solicitors they employ can make the declaration in the relevant section of these forms.

You will need to keep the records of your planning and completion of activities so you can give them to the SRA should they want them. The SRA may ask for these records if they have cause to engage with you about a regulatory matter or where they have evidence of a competence risk. It is good practice to keep these records for six years.

If you identify a learning need that is a significant risk to being able to deliver a proper standard of service, you should try to address this as soon as possible, and it should be addressed by the time of the annual declaration. Any additional needs that have arisen over the course of the declaration year should be addressed as soon as possible but inevitably there will be some learning needs that remain unmet for some solicitors, especially as reflection is an ongoing process.

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Can I sign the annual declaration if I have not addressed all the learning needs I have identified?

Yes, continuing competence is an ongoing process with no start and finish date. By identifying issues to address, and looking at ways to address them, you are engaging with this process and can sign the annual declaration. For example, you may choose to undertake a course that lasts more than a year, or to attend some training that takes place after the annual returns date. You may also not have had time to address all the learning needs if you have identified a few. In this case, you should simply seek to address them within a reasonable time frame.

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Can I make returns on behalf of the solicitors within my firm?

Yes, an individual solicitor or someone on behalf of them can make the declaration. This means that firms can still use the bulk renewal form where they wish to do so on behalf of the solicitors in their firm.

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How should I keep a record?

You can maintain your records in any way you see fit, and your firm may have systems that can record this information. The SRA has produced a series of templates which you can use to set out and record how you have planned and completed your CPD activities if you wish.

In addition to recording how you have planned and what you have done, you need to evaluate how the activity you undertook addressed the learning need(s) you identified.

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Would my continuing competence records be disclosable in negligence cases and/or to PII insurers if a claim is made?

It is possible that your records may be disclosable depending on the discovery ordered by the judge. It is therefore important to keep clear records showing how you have identified and addressed learning needs. It is also important to address serious learning needs that may affect your competence as a practitioner as a matter of urgency.

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How often should I reflect and how often should I record what I am doing and how?

You should consider reflecting at regular intervals as this may be the most beneficial way of engaging with continuing competence. This reflection does not need to be an arduous or burdensome process. You may choose to spend a few minutes once a week or once a month reflecting on the work you have done and noting down any areas to look at addressing. You may alternatively choose to reflect when you complete a piece of work, however, long a period that has been.

Once you have noted these areas to address (the learning needs) you can then look at planning and addressing them once a quarter, with activities spread out to suit you.

There are, of course, instances where immediate learning needs will be identified and addressed during a piece of work. These should also be noted down and counted towards your continuing competence.

You can record what you are doing in any way you wish, whether on paper or using one of many available online systems. The Law Society's Professional Development Centre is one of these online resources, whilst the SRA has a template form you can print off and use, or adapt to your own needs.

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What happens if I only complete the written plan and activities in the month prior to the deadline?

There is no set timetable for the setting and completion of activities so this would be acceptable and wouldd meet the requirements for continuing competence.

It is important to recognise though that this process is about ongoing learning and development. It is not supposed to be a box-ticking exercise. Solicitors will only benefit from this process to the extent that they engage with it in the spirit intended.

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How many hours should I complete?

There is no set number of hours of CPD learning activity that you must complete under the continuing competence system. However, you should consider your professional responsibilities under principle 5 of the SRA Handbook, which requires you to provide a proper standard of service to your client and consider how you can best demonstrate that you are doing this. You should also consider your role and responsibilities within your organisation, to your employer and your co-workers.

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What happens if I have only identified and addressed one learning need?

This is fine and meets the requirement for continuing competence. However, you may wish to consider more widely what you have done over the past year as it is likely that you have addressed more than one learning need, whether this was through updating your knowledge on a topic, discussing a matter with a colleague to clarify a position or undertaking more formal training. There are many ways in which learning needs are addressed in the course of ongoing work, both formal and informal.

It may be worth adopting a practice of reflecting on a piece of work once completed to review where this more informal process has occurred and noting it down. It may be that the learning need has already been addressed or it may be that upon reflection you wish to undertake a further activity or activities.

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Can I just do nothing?

Continuing competence is not an excuse to no longer complete CPD learning activities. As a minimum, you must consider your practice, your learning needs and any gaps that may need to be addressed. If you are content that you do not need to address anything then you do not have to do any CPD learning activities. However, you must be able to demonstrate you have carried out this process and have kept adequate records to provide to the SRA if required. You must also still make an annual declaration, as outlined above.

You should also consider the benefits of CPD activities in keeping you up to date and able to provide the best possible service to your client, which is likely to be of commercial advantage. It is unlikely that you do not complete any activities, as reading journals, articles or discussing practice with colleagues are all ways in which knowledge and skills are kept up to date, and these can be counted towards your continuing competence.

One way to regularly review and identify your learning needs might be to add a question to file closure and review forms, asking whether any learning needs have been identified during the course of the work or review.

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Why is CPD important?

Continuing professional development is one element of being a member of any profession and is key to demonstrating your continuing competence as a solicitor within the SRA's regulatory framework. Solicitors represent a 'gold' standard in the provision of legal services, and members of the profession should strive to continuously improve the service they provide to their clients, rather than being content to provide a merely competent service.

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What types of activities can count towards my continuing competence?

In the context of the continuing competence requirements, a CPD learning activity is anything that you undertake outside of the requirements of your usual job role in order to meet learning and development needs. An activity is considered valid so long as you can demonstrate that it contributes to maintaining your competence in line with principle 5. There is no prescribed list of allowed activities, although you may wish to look at the SRA's toolkit, which sets out some suggestions if you are unsure. You may also wish to have reference to the domains within the Competence Statement to direct your learning activities.

Continuing competence enables each solicitor to tailor their activities to their specific learning and development needs and their individual learning style. You may choose to undertake a range of activities to meet different learning needs in the most appropriate ways.

You may wish to consider the following list when planning your activities. This list is not exhaustive but may provide some ideas.

CPD activities:

  • participation in courses
  • working towards professional qualifications
  • coaching and/or mentoring sessions
  • work shadowing
  • listening to or watching audio/visual material
  • distance learning
  • writing on law or practice
  • research
  • production of a dissertation counting towards an SRA recognised qualification
  • development of specialist areas of law
  • preparing and delivering training courses
  • work towards a National Vocational Qualification (NVQ) or other qualification
     

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Can I attend courses?

You can, of course, attend courses as part of your CPD activities. The SRA is not accrediting courses or providers of courses. As such, you may wish to assure yourself of the quality of the course being provided where this is done by an external provider.

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What standard is used to determine if a solicitor is competent?

Principle 5 makes it plain that the solicitor must be competent to carry on his or her own practice. Therefore, the standard for competence for an individual solicitor's practice ought to be that set by the solicitor's own firm. The Competence Statement reflects what a solicitor needs to do to practise effectively. A solicitor is expected to be able to demonstrate the skills and knowledge outlined in relation to their role, applying the Competence Statement to their particular job and level of responsibility. There is no performance standard built into the Competence Statement.

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What happens if a firm decides a solicitor has not reached that firm's required standard of competence?

The annual declaration does not require an individual solicitor or individual on behalf of the firm to declare whether an individual is competent or not. The SRA only requires confirmation that an individual has reflected on the quality of their practice and addressed any identified learning and development needs. Where an employer has an issue with the competence of an individual, that is a matter for them. A proper standard of service may be maintained even where there are issues in relation to the competence of an individual solicitor, for example, through proper supervision arrangements.

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My firm will not fund CPD, what can I do?

There are many CPD activities that you can undertake in order to fulfil your continuing competence requirements that have no associated cost. So long as you can demonstrate that you have carried out the process of reflection, planning, completion and recording as outlined above, you will have met the requirements.

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How is the Law Society supporting the profession?

The Law Society's Professional Development Centre provides a number of learning activities, both free and paid-for, including webinars and courses, in a user-friendly way. There is also a function that provides a space to reflect on and record activities, in line with the continuing competence requirements.

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What other resources are there for me?

The SRA have produced a toolkit, with example forms and a pro-forma for the annual return.