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Continuing Competence Guidance - FAQs

Last updated: 2 December 2016

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

You should have moved over to the new system by 1 November 2016.

 

What is continuing competence?

Continuing competence is the new 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 the purpose of context. It's also the standard against which solicitors can measure their competence as practitioners.

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How is this different from Continuing Professional Development?

The idea behind continuing competence is to replace the current inputs-based system of continuing professional development (CPD) - where a certain number of completed hours ensures compliance - with an outputs-based system where it's the process and effect of learning activities that's important.

For instance, the profession has told us it's more beneficial to spend one hour reading a targeted journal which improves your legal knowledge of your practice area than to spend seven hours at a course which relates only tentatively to your area, because you are trying to fulfil a requirement.

Under the new system, there's no requirement to attend courses or learning by approved providers and so there will no longer be any approved providers of CPD courses. There's also no requirement to complete a certain number of hours and there are no longer any specific allowed activities. Anything that's done 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?

From 1 November 2016, 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 might want to refer to the competence statement when doing this. It's 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 will I need to give to the SRA?

You will need to make an annual declaration, as you do currently. 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 solicitors. 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 need to contact 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's a significant risk to being able to deliver a proper standard of service, you should try to address this as soon as possible, and by the time of the annual declaration. Any additional needs identified 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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When do I need to make returns?

Previously, PCRE continuing professional development declarations were made a year in arrears. Under the new system of continuing competence, the declaration will be for the current practice year that is coming to a close. As solicitors transition to the new system, they will be asked to make the appropriate declaration.

2016 PCRE

This relates to practice year 2014-15:

For the 2016 declaration only, solicitors who continued to adopt the old 16-hours approach for continuing professional development will make the old 16-hours declaration.

Solicitors who adopted the new continuing competence approach during the 2014/15 CPD year, will make the new declaration in line with this.

2017 PCRE

The declaration will be moved so that solicitors are making a declaration relating to the current (rather than previous) practice year. All solicitors will make the new declaration.

With the move to the new system, there is a 'gap' year that emerges for the 2015-16 period. Although the SRA does not require any formal declaration for this period, solicitors should still complete CPD activities to remain competent and keep adequate records as the SRA might request these.

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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 existing systems which 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 identified learning need(s) and show how you have done this.

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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. This requires you to provide a proper standard of service to your client and consider how you can best demonstrate 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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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 there are no areas you need to address 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 - 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 learning needs is 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 which you undertake outside of the requirements of your usual 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.

Solicitors have reported that many of the most useful activities they undertook did not count under the CPD regime. The new system of continuing competence recognises this and is an opportunity for 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 forming part of the process of qualification or post-admission training
  • work towards a National Vocational Qualification (NVQ) or other qualification
     

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Can I still attend courses?

You can still attend courses as part of your CPD activities. The SRA is no longer accrediting courses, or providers of courses so you might want to ensure the quality of any courses 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 newly launched Professional Development Centre provides a number of learning activities, both free and paid-for, including webinars and courses. It also 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.