Legal watchdog moves to quell MPs’ super-exam fears after dismissing calls to delay approval

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By Thomas Connelly on

SQE received provisional go-ahead last month

The Legal Services Board (LSB) has written to MPs on the Justice Committee to explain why it dismissed their calls to delay its decision to approve the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE).

Addressing the committee’s plea to defer its decision for six months, LSB interim chair Dr Helen Phillips said it had already extended the SQE decision period on two separate occasions — equaling “the full 90 days permitted by statute.”

She continues: “We have powers in certain circumstances to issue a warning notice and extend this period, but they were not applicable in this case.”

The response comes just weeks after Justice Committee MPs urged the LSB to delay its decision to enable the application “to be given more careful scrutiny”. The missive, signed by Committee chair and ex-criminal barrister Bob Neill, suggested that the SQE model risked “damaging the reputation of our legal profession” if sufficient “safeguards” were not put in place.

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Dismissing the Committee’s concerns, the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s (SRA) plans to introduce a centralised super exam were officially given the go-ahead by the LSB last month. Justifying its approval, Phillips’ letter continues:

“We assessed the arguments put forward for and against the changes and concluded that there was no evidence to suggest that a negative impact on the international competitiveness of the England and Wales legal profession is likely to result from the removal of the requirement for prescribed academic study of law. Any residual risk was not considered sufficient for this to be a ground for refusing the application, especially when balanced against the wider potential positive impacts on the regulatory objectives that the SRA is seeking through the changes.”

That being said, Phillips was quick to point out that there is still a long way to go before the SQE becomes a reality, adding:

“It is important to stress that the introduction of the SQE does not follow automatically from today’s approval. The SRA will have to submit and the LSB will have to approve further rules change applications. Approval of this application does not mean any further rule changes will be approved.”

The SRA has battled hard to ensure its super exam dream remains alive.

Last April, the SRA revealed plans to replace the traditional routes to qualification — the Legal Practice Course (LPC) and Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) — with the super exam as early as September 2020. The plan is that the new route will be split into two parts (SQE1 and SQE2) and will still require wannabe solicitors to complete a training contract, albeit on a more flexible basis than previously.

City law firms have also expressed concerns over the new exam format, particularly the proposed transition period. The SRA has suggested a preference towards a “lengthy transition period” during which time both the traditional route to qualification and the SQE will operate in parallel. Despite this, we reported earlier this year that City firms were likely to ignore this lengthy transition period and insist trainees sit the super exam from 2022 onwards.

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