Two-part assessment to come into force from 1 September 2021 — subject to LSB approval
The regulator has today revealed the final design of the new solicitor super-exam.
The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has put forward, subject to approval from the Legal Services Board (LSB), the blueprint for the new route to solicitor qualification.
The Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE), a two-part national assessment to be set and examined centrally, is due to come into force from autumn 2021 — phasing out the current system under the Legal Practice Course and years of exams being set and marked by more than 100 different training providers. The current COVID-19 crisis will not delay the introduction of the SQE from next year, the SRA confirmed.
Those who wish to qualify as a solicitor will need to pass the SQE, as well as hold a degree or equivalent qualification or experience, complete a two-year period of qualifying work experience, and pass a suitability test.
The regulator outlined the changes it has made to the SQE design based on “expert input, independent review and two pilot[s], involving more than 480 candidates, as well as analysis of data from the Qualified Lawyers Transfer Scheme”. The QLTS mirrors the proposed multiple-choice question (MCQ) format of the SQE.
The first stage of the assessment, known as SQE1, will consist of two exams of 180 MCQs each, rather than three with 120 MCQs, which was the format adopted at the pilot stage. This, it says, will improve the “reliability” and “accuracy” of the exam.
The SRA has decided that SQE1 will focus on examining functioning legal knowledge, i.e. black letter law, while SQE2 will focus exclusively on testing practical skills. This has been a point of contention in the past: Kaplan, the education provider tasked with delivering the SQE, recommended (following the results of the SQE1 pilot last summer) that the skills element under SQE1, be scrapped. It may set “an unnecessary barrier to qualification which disadvantages BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) candidates, which would be unacceptable,” the regulator found at the time.
The SRA has explained the decision to assess legal knowledge and skills separately was to remove duplication given that practical skills will be tested “extensively” in SQE2 and to avoid an “unjustified” increase in assessment costs. Issues of ethics and professional conduct will be examined across SQE1 and SQE2.
The regulator has confirmed that all candidates will sit the same assessment for SQE2. “[T]his is the best way to create a fair and consistent assessment with a universal standard at admission rather than options for candidates on which practice areas they have their skills tested in,” the SRA found, based on expert review and pilot results.
SQE2 will examine six legal skills in criminal litigation, dispute resolution, property practice, wills and intestacy, probate administration and practice, and business organisations, rules and procedures, through 15 to 18 tasks (or “stations”). SQE2 skills stations will, for the most part, be written assessments, i.e. research, drafting or case analysis exercises, with the exception of advocacy and client interviewing, which will be assessed orally, much like the bar course, in which students are assessed on their performance in simulated court settings.
The client interview exercise will involve, for example, students being given a scenario affecting their client (a professional actor or actress) that they will have time to prepare for, act out and then follow-up with a written attendance note.
The SQE2 pilot results were released by the SRA on Friday.
Giving feedback on the pilot, which took place in December, 80% of the participants agreed or strongly agreed that the legal skills questions were clear; 67% agreed or strongly agreed that the questions reflected problems that might be encountered by a solicitor on the first day. Some candidates thought sample questions and answers would help clarify the standard or level expected. The SRA plans to publish sample questions and answers for SQE2 later this year.
Further, in response to stakeholder feedback, the regulator has said that the SQE will be available in both English and Welsh through a phased introduction that will lead to full parity between English and Welsh within four years.
The SRA’s next steps include sourcing feedback on an updated SQE2 assessment specification as well as finalising the costs for taking SQE1 and 2, most likely in the coming weeks. The costs for taking both exams will be within the initial estimates of between £3,000 and £4,500, the regulator said.
The SRA will then seek final sign-off on the SQE design from the LSB. If approved, the SQE will be introduced on 1 September 2021. SQE1 would run in autumn 2021, with the first SQE2 assessment in spring 2022.
Julie Brannan, SRA education and training chief, told Legal Cheek that she is confident the SRA will receive the backing of the LSB, adding that the exam is “in the public interest”, that it meets the intended regulatory objectives and that it upholds consumer protection while being fair to candidates.
Brannan pointed out that the LSB has already approved the initial reforms in 2018 which will pave the way for it to consider the developments of the last couple of years.
Paul Philip, SRA chief executive, said: “Extensive input, expert and independent review and careful testing means we are confident that we have developed a rigorous, fair, world class assessment for all aspiring solicitors, regardless of background or route taken. The SQE will provide greater assurance for the public and employers that qualifying solicitors have met the consistent, high standards they would expect.”