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The Junior Lawyer Division responds to the Legal Services Board's approval of the SQE
The Junior Lawyers Division (JLD) notes the decision of the Legal Service Board (LSB) to approve the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE), together with the Solicitors Regulation Authority's (SRA) assurances and commitments to now take the SQE forward.
Throughout the development of the SQE, the JLD has always welcomed the principle of a consistent, centralised examination, whilst also wanting to ensure that concerns and risks relating to the practical implementation of the new framework are properly addressed. The JLD (and others) have previously highlighted the risks of the SQE, in particular:
- potentially lowering standards due to the use of Multiple Choice Questions (MCQs) to assess legal knowledge
- candidates only having to have had ‘the opportunity’ to develop the necessary skills to satisfy the work experience component of SQE
- the potential negative impact on equality, diversity and inclusion, particularly noting that student loans may not be available to assist candidates and subsequently impacting on those from lower socio-economic backgrounds
- the concerning data from the SQE pilot regarding differential attainment based on candidates' race and that the pilot examinations did not have enough disabled candidates partaking to properly assess if the new format would disproportionately impact on candidates with disabilities
In highlighting concerns, the JLD has never said that the current qualification system is perfect and acknowledges that there is currently a training contract bottleneck. It now remains to be seen whether this bottleneck will simply move to the point at which junior lawyers apply for Newly Qualified roles.
The JLD also expects that the SQE, together with the preparation courses currently being developed by education providers, will not prove to be any cheaper than the current system meaning that those in the bottleneck are still likely to have the same amount of expenditure/debt, although with the new system we do not expect this cost to be capable of funding through student loans or grants.
While the JLD accepts that to some degree the LSB's hands are tied by its statutory framework, it's disappointing that in approving the application there appears to be a substantial reliance on assurances provided by the SRA in relation to unpublished guidance (for example on work experience and reasonable adjustments) and/or on commitments to further review areas where there are evident or anticipated problems (such as the impact of the changes on BAME and disabled candidates) after the SQE is implemented.
In short, it seems that the first few cohorts of candidates to sit the SQE will effectively be taking part in an amended pilot (at significant cost) for issues which should have been addressed through further, comprehensive piloting prior to implementation.
It's also disappointing that some concerns that the JLD has directly raised with the LSB about the new examination format – for example, that candidates will be able to ‘fail’ one key area of law (such as tort, contract law etc.) but still pass SQE (as opposed to having to resit the exam in the current system) – have not been addressed at all in the LSB’s decision notice.
In light of the LSB's final decision, however, the JLD accepts that it is time to move forward. We'll continue to support junior lawyers as the SQE is introduced, to ensure adequate protection of those hoping to enter our profession and to ensure that continued improvements to the SQE are driven by the data we anticipate being generated.
The JLD welcomes the SRA’s commitment to evaluate the SQE and asks that it now engages with stakeholders to ensure that any evaluation is robust, and to undertake that it's prepared to consider a 'plan B' if the objectives of the SQE are not being met or if the evidence suggests that the current system is superior.