January 2017 represented a significant juncture for the future of legal training in this country: the closing of consultations by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) and the Bar Standards Board (BSB) on proposals for how the solicitors and barristers of the future should be educated and trained.
The current debate about training began with the Legal Education
and Training Review (LETR), jointly commissioned by the SRA, the
BSB and ILEX Professional Standards, which reported in June 2013.
It identified a number of ways in which the quality, accessibility
and flexibility of legal education and training need to be improved
to ensure the system remains fit for the future.
For aspiring lawyers, it has been clear for some time that
access to the profession is significantly hindered by the cost of
postgraduate legal education and training. Efforts have been made
to increase flexibility by promoting work-based learning and
alternative routes to qualification, but there seems to be a
perception that this has come at the cost of consistency.
The SRA has responded by proposing a new Solicitors Qualifying
Examination (SQE), a single assessment for prospective solicitors
to take at the point of qualification, intended to provide a
consistent professional benchmark.
The SRA's second consultation on the proposed SQE (A new
route to qualification: the Solicitors Qualifying Examination
(SQE), October 2016; closed 9 January 2017) followed a pause
for reflection after considering the responses to the first, the
majority of which were either 'wholly negative' or not supportive
of the proposals as then designed.
YLAL was among the respondents to the first consultation in March
2016, and we welcomed the SRA's decision to consult again. While we
agree that the route to qualification is in desperate need of
improvement, we have concerns about the potential effect of the SQE
on social mobility, diversity and access to the profession.
In our view, the initial consultation failed to provide sufficient
information about the anticipated cost of the SQE and the effect of
its introduction on the status of undergraduate law degrees and the
Legal Practice Course.
In its second consultation, the SRA provided a more detailed
picture of how the SQE would work, setting out its structure and
The SQE would include assessments covering knowledge of the law
(stage 1) and practical legal skills (stage 2), and would require
candidates to have a substantial period of workplace training
(probably 24 months) and a degree.
Meanwhile, the BSB's Consultation on the future of training
for the Bar: future routes to authorisation (October 2016;
closed 31 January 2017) put forward three alternatives:
• Option A: an 'evolutionary' approach retaining the three
sequential stages of the current
system - academic legal education (law degree/Graduate
Diploma in Law), vocational
training (the Bar Professional Training Course) and
work-based learning (pupillage).
• Option B: a 'managed pathways' approach, which would establish a
number of different
training pathways, allowing greater flexibility. This is
the BSB's preferred option.
• Option C: a 'Bar specialist' approach, requiring students to
pass a new qualifying
examination - the Bar Entrance Exam - followed by an
approved skills course and
A fourth proposal from the Council of the Inns of Court,
supported by the Bar Council, was published on 1 December
This mirrored option A, except the vocational training syllabus
would be split into two parts, covering knowledge and skills
respectively (similar to the SQE).
Progress to the skills assessment of part 2 - covering advocacy,
opinion writing, drafting and ethics - would be conditional on
passing the knowledge assessment of criminal and civil procedure
and evidence in part 1.
YLAL has recently responded to both the SRA and BSB
We have emphasised a number of common themes to be prioritised on
behalf of our members, such as reducing course fees to improve
access to the profession and ensuring flexibility and accessibility
of course content and provision, in order to enable
career-changers, those with caring responsibilities, or part-time
workers to undertake professional training.
The consultations provided a unique opportunity to impress upon
the regulators the need for legal training to be delivered in a
flexible and affordable manner, promoting access to the profession
for all, irrespective of background.
Clear social mobility strategies and joined-up thinking in terms
of the routes to qualification for all lawyers are key.
The active involvement of the Law Society and the Inns of Court is
also vital in order to effectively hold the regulators to account
on social mobility.
In our last column (November 2016
Legal Action 16), we discussed YLAL's plans to prepare
an updated social mobility and diversity report following a survey
of aspiring and junior legal aid lawyers.
Our survey closed just before Christmas, and we are now in the
process of collating and analysing the data before drafting the
report, in which we will no doubt make recommendations for action
to be taken to widen access to the legal profession by its
regulators as well as employers, representative bodies and the
Oliver Carter is a trainee solicitor at
Irwin Mitchell. Rachel Francis is
a barrister at 1 Pump Court Chambers. They are
co-chairs of YLAL.