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Junior lawyers seek to have approval of the SQE overturned

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Letter to Justice Committee aims to skewer super-exam

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The chair of the Junior Lawyers Division (JLD) has written to the Justice Committee seeking an inquiry into the Legal Services Board’s (LSB) decision to approve the new solicitor super-exam.

In an open letter addressed to Bob Neill MP, chair of the House of Commons Justice Committee, Amy Clowrey expresses concern that the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) will “be contrary to the public interest”, “not be in the interest of consumers” and “result in lower professional standards”. The SQE will replace both the Legal Practice Course (LPC) and Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) when it comes into force in September 2021.

The Solicitors Regulation Authority’s (SRA) plans to replace traditional routes to qualification were approved by the LSB — an independent body responsible for overseeing the regulation of lawyers across England and Wales — in March 2018. This came despite former criminal barrister Neill urging the legal watchdog to defer its decision for six months, “to enable the SRA’s application to be given more careful scrutiny”.

The JLD of The Law Society, which represents approximately 70,000 LPC students, trainees and solicitors with up to five years’ post qualification experience (PQE), is supportive of a centralised assessment and has been involved in the consultation process but has put forward a number of outstanding concerns. These are “the removal of the requirement to study academic law substantively, assessment by method of multiple-choice question (MCQ) examination, training requiring only ‘the opportunity’ to develop the necessary competencies and sign-off being possible by a newly qualified solicitor who may not ever have met the trainee”.

On the face of it there is a risk, Clowrey continues, that “these changes will lead to a decrease in the standard of assessment and experience necessary to qualify as a solicitor and ultimately a decline in the service provided to consumers (with a consequent deterioration in the reputation of the profession domestically and internationally)”.

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The letter adds that the “unresolved question” of how much it will cost to qualify (and whether loans will be available) have raised concerns about a “negative social mobility impact”. In November 2018, the SRA indicated students will “likely” pay between £3,000 and £4,500 to sit the assessment, with course fees on top of this sum.

Speaking to Legal Cheek, Law Society council member and JLD rep Laura Uberoi said:

“The JLD remains concerned about the lack of detail around, and scrutiny being applied to, the SQE that is due to be implemented in 2021. We are proud that solicitors are currently held to a high standard and that we are becoming a more diverse profession — it is imperative we maintain these qualities with the implementation of the SQE.”

The LSB will have to approve a further application from the SRA before the SQE can be implemented. The JLD requests the Justice Committee holds either “an evidence session” or “a short inquiry” to review the LSB’s approval of the SQE to date before the next stage of the SQE application process.

The SQE will be split into two parts: SQE1 focusing on black letter law and taking the form of a computer-based, multiple-choice assessment, while SQE2 will test prospective solicitors’ practical legal skills such as advocacy and interviewing.

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