“Recent consultations have provided a unique opportunity to impress upon the regulators the need for legal training to promote access to the profession for all.”
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 content. 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.
•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 work-based learning.
A fourth proposal from the Council of the Inns of Court, supported by the Bar Council, was published on 1 December 2016. 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 consultations. 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 government.