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SQE won’t widen access to profession, says University of Law

Current proposals for a central entrance exam for the solicitors profession will not widen participation and could lower levels of competence, the country’s largest legal academic institute says today.

In a hard-hitting response to the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s second consultation on the solicitors qualifying examination (SQE), the University of Law says the revised proposals lack ‘detailed pedagogical basis’. It also warns of ‘weaknesses in the underlying argument as to why these changes are necessary’.

For example, the response says, ‘it is not obvious to the university either that the level of negligence claims or complaints against the profession (cited as a reason for change) are caused by the current training regime pre-qualification, nor that the proposed reforms could have a meaningful impact – indeed, there is a risk that competence levels may be lowered by these proposals’.

The SRA says that the proposed two-part super-exam will ensure qualification standards are rigorous, fair, transparent and consistent. However a first consultation on the proposals last year attracted heavy opposition. Revised proposals published for consultation in October were more warmly received by professional bodies, including the Law Society.

However the Society still has concerns that the new entry route could raise barriers to applicants from less-privileged backgrounds.

The university’s response, published today, agrees that there are ‘positive reasons’ for a centralised system of examination. However Professor Andrea Nollent, vice-chancellor and chief executive, said: ‘We disagree that the proposed SQE will be a robust and effective measure of competence.

‘We agree that, as with other professions, law should be a graduate profession but the SQE will be too superficial in stage 1 and too narrow and restricted in stage 2, to properly assess the competence needed for trainee or qualified solicitors to safely act for the public.

‘Firms will find their trainees will not have the subject knowledge of the area they are working on, nor the same level of skills in applying knowledge to practice areas that current trainees have. We anticipate that many law firms will require additional courses to be undertaken to make up for the competence gap.

‘These courses will add to the cost of training, and potentially end up costing students more than the current LPC.’

Nollent also expressed concerns that the proposed SQE may not develop or test the full range of intellectual skills needed to practise law. ‘This may mean students are less equipped for practice than they are under the current pathways to qualification. The SRA proposals may also impact negatively on diversity, with firms reverting to recruiting trainees from tried and tested backgrounds,’ she said.

The SRA’s second consultation closes on Monday.

By Michael Cross (Courtesy of the Law Society Gazette)