Don’t launch solicitor super-exam during a global pandemic

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By Thom Brooks on

Durham Uni Law School chief urges regulator to postpone SQE

The swift spread of the coronavirus COVID-19 has had significant consequences for us all.

Working remotely has gone from optional to mandatory within a few short weeks. Our workplaces are temporarily closed and the court system has been seriously impacted as well. Law students have now gone home from their universities as their professors switch from teaching in ever larger lecture theatres to Zoom.

In virtually every area of our lives, we see planned reforms paused and put on ice so that something as close to ‘business as usual’ can be maintained. A global pandemic is not the time to consider the future of the Qualifying Law Degree, but rather ensuring the existing system can be maintained through the current crisis.

The main regulator for becoming a solicitor — the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has conceded temporary changes of how assessments are conducted may be unavoidable under these extreme circumstances. An enormous amount of effort and time will be spent getting this right for the sake of students and the wider profession.

But it is now time for the SRA to go one step further and postpone its plans for the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (or SQE) — widely referred to as the “super-exam” — for at least six months. The SRA is expected to request formal approval from the LSB this summer.

It is unreasonable and unnecessary to divert attention from the major challenges posed to all education providers by the pandemic to respond to any such submission. To potentially require significant changes to how law is taught — on top of the virtually overnight shift for most providers from traditional lectures to online learning — would be enormously and avoidably disruptive.

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Putting the SQE on the backburner until the coronavirus outbreak is under control does not entail the exam must be abandoned as a result. If the SRA wants to launch it, then its plans should receive proper scrutiny and the providers who are to prepare students for whatever these plans might be must have time to succeed. Neither is possible now.

Many see the SQE as a gamble not worth the risk at the best of times. I am a vocal opponent of the SQE while a passionate advocate for wider legal education reform. I worry that a top law programme will be judged more on whether its factory-produced students pass a standardised test setting a threshold instead of innovative excellence in delivery of world class pedagogy. I also have concerns about the costs and doubt the SQE solves the problem of access and quality that motivate its introduction. But now is not the time to have this crucially important debate. COVID-19 has changed timescales in virtually all areas of life — this should be no different.

If a global pandemic is not a sufficiently strong reason to postpone SQE plans until next summer, then it’s not clear what would. I call on the SRA to hold off on the SQE so we can work together on getting this right after this crisis is over.

Thom Brooks is dean of Durham Law School and vice president of the Society of Legal Scholars. He writes in a personal capacity.

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