City firms will have viewed the SRA's latest consultation on a new route to qualification: the Solicitors Qualifying Examination with interest. Many of the criticisms of the original proposals, made back in March 2016, have been taken on board and the proposals now being made represent a significant step forward.
The inclusion of a degree level qualification and most likely two-years of work-based learning as a pre-requisite for entry are to be welcomed. The substantial period of work-based learning is particularly important as, with the demise of the legal practice course (LPC), individuals are likely to be less well prepared when they commence their training. This period of work-based learning will also be key to preparing trainees to pass the second-stage of the SQE assessments, during which they will have to demonstrate practical skills.
There are a number of areas that the SRA still need to address however. The sign-off of the two year work-based learning period needs to be clarified. If, as the SRA suggests will be possible, trainees can count time spent with different employers towards the whole, the final training principal needs some reassurance to send in the final sign off required. There is no guarantee that a trainee has been given the opportunity to acquire all of the competencies whilst with other employers and clear guidance will be required.
Whilst the SRA have stated that the SQE assessments will represent good value for money and cost less than the current LPC, they have not answered queries about how this cost is to be met and there may be a real funding problem for those unable to pay as many graduate loans will not cover it. There is also the potential cost of SQE preparatory courses, which will emerge at some point.
Diversity within the profession is something the SRA has a duty to promote and without addressing this funding issue there is a real danger that many students will see this cost as yet another barrier to entry to the profession.
The SRA have stated that the SQE has been brought in primarily to address the lack of standards and consistency, not the current equality and diversity issues, but in doing so it should not implement proposals that exacerbate the current situation even further.
Concerns have been raised about the way in which the SRA plan to publish assessment results data linked to where students and trainees have undertaken their education and training. Providing good sources of information to students to enable them to make informed decisions is good practice but it must be made clear where institutions and firms have provided SQE preparatory elements and where they have not. Otherwise it will unduly prejudice providers and further confuse students.
The Law Society has submitted a detailed response to the SRA's proposals, following consultation with stakeholders. The consultation closes on 9 January 2017.