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Law Society chief says solicitor super-exam could benefit ‘wealthier’ students

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Claim made that central assessment could “promote nepotism”

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Law Society chief Jonathan Smithers has today launch a scathing attack on the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) — claiming a proposed solicitor super-exam that it’s backing would restrict access to the profession and benefit “wealthier” students.

The planned centralised assessment effectively rolls together the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) and the Legal Practice Course (LPC) and would have to be undertaken by all those wishing to qualify as a solicitor, even LLB graduates. The exam, which would be open to both graduates and non-graduates, was given the SRA’s official support earlier this week.

Smithers, in a statement released earlier today on The Law Society website, fired several warning shots at the solicitors’ regulator, suggesting that the new exam would create “uncertainty” among students looking to become lawyers.

Responding to the launch of the SRA-backed consultation earlier this week, Smithers suggested that the move could actually increase the costs for those seeking a career as a solicitor, indirectly favouring wealthier students. Highlighting the potential cost of law school-run preparation courses — which would be optional under the proposal, unlike the current compulsory LPC — Smithers warned:

This could promote nepotism and result in wealthier students being favoured especially as there may be no restrictions on the number of times an assessment could be retaken and no time restrictions on the completion of all elements. It is likely that these proposed changes would disproportionately affect less advantaged students because they would find it harder to gain funding for non-compulsory courses and will still need to prepare for the assessments in some way. It is also likely that crammer courses or other such provisions will arise, which will intensify the cost.

With concern that anyone could could effectively walk off the street and take a punt at the exam, Smithers argued the move could “devalue” the current routes to qualification. Claiming — somewhat dramatically — that the super-exam could even damage the global competitiveness of UK law, he continued:

The SRA state that their assessments will be at degree level but there will be no requirement for an underpinning course, such as the law degree or other course. A modular approach weakens the reliability of the assessments. A degree-level qualification is essential — academic rigour underpins the commercial success of the profession.

Stressing the “important” role training contracts play in a trainee solicitor’s development, Smithers was also uneasy about the SRA having yet to commit to a level of pre-qualification work experience.

Scrutinising the regulatory body’s proposals, Smithers was sceptical on the cost-saving benefits of the new form of centralised assessment. He went on:

Although the SRA claim that entry to the profession will be at a lower cost than currently if students do not take the Legal Practice Course, we have seen no evidence in support of this.

The Law Society president’s attack follows a wave of heavy criticism aimed at the SRA over the super-exam.

Earlier this week — speaking at Westminster Legal Policy Forum — Professor Avrom Sherr of the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies questioned the motives behind the proposals. Querying whether putting students through yet more exams was really the answer, he suggested this was more about the SRA remaining in control, as opposed to “maintaining standards”.

However, students have largely backed the super-exam, arguing in the Legal Cheek comments and on our Facebook page that anything is better than the current system, which sees graduates with £27,000 of university tuition fee debt then slapped with £15,000 in LPC fees. Preparing for the super-exam would be cheaper, they hope.

The SRA-led survey will run until 4 March 2016 and you can find it here.

Previously:

Solicitors Regulation Authority gives official backing to plan to scrap the LPC [Legal Cheek]