Legal Services Board approves significant changes to how solicitors qualify

The Legal Services Board (LSB) has approved the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s (SRA) application to make significant changes to how people qualify as solicitors in England and Wales. The changes include the introduction of a new centralised assessment, the Solicitors Qualification Examination (SQE), and a requirement for a minimum of two years’ qualifying work experience (QWE).

The SRA regulates solicitors in England and Wales and sets qualification standards. The LSB oversees the SRA and ensures regulation is carried out in the interests of the public.

To introduce the planned changes, the SRA needed to apply to the LSB for approval. The LSB approved the application following a thorough assessment and concluded that if the SRA realises its stated ambition, it should have a positive impact on the regulatory objectives set out in the Legal Services Act 2007. While the LSB’s decision identifies issues that will need to be managed by the SRA, it did not consider them to outweigh the likely benefits of the changes.

The LSB received the SRA’s application on 31 July 2020. The LSB extended the initial 28-day decision period to 28 October 2020. This enabled the LSB to make additional enquiries about the application and fully understand the impact of the proposed changes for people who need legal services, future solicitors, and the profession. The LSB also considered information from third parties as part of its assessment.

The LSB received assurances from the SRA on some areas of initial concern and in response to the LSB’s enquiries on the application, the SRA refined how its proposals would be implemented. For example, the SRA has built in additional safeguards around QWE to help to prevent poor treatment of candidates and extend its approach to monitoring how things are working in reality. It also set out further detail on its expectations around the quality of QWE and how this will be enforced. These changes will ultimately help to benefit and protect the public.

In its assessment, the LSB draws attention to a range of issues that the SRA will need to manage carefully to realise the full benefits of the changes. The SRA has undertaken to:

  1. Monitor and evaluate the impact of the SQE and conduct an initial review within two years of implementation.
  2. Commission independent research in 2021 to investigate the underlying reasons that candidates from some protected minority groups did not perform as well as other groups in the SQE pilots. The results of the first cohort of the SQE will inform this research.
  3. Publish comprehensive guidance on QWE for candidates and firms.
  4. Continue to demonstrate openness and transparency as it implements the SQE. This includes publishing guidance for students on the different choices of SQE training available and data on performance in SQE assessments, as well as pass rates for candidates by the SQE training provider that they attended.

The LSB will receive regular updates from the SRA on progress implementing the SQE, and it will monitor this through its regulatory performance framework.

Dr Helen Phillips, Chair of the Legal Services Board, said:

“We have approved the SRA’s application because there are no grounds for refusal, and more importantly, if the regulator follows through on its commitments, it will benefit people who need legal services.  The SQE should ensure consistency of standards and improve diversity access to the sector. This should help increase consumers’ trust and confidence, create a profession that better reflects society, and widen access to justice.

“The SQE is untested, however, and not without risk. In reaching our conclusion, we have taken account of the assurances and commitments provided by the SRA, including to monitor and evaluate implementation and conduct research to understand the impact of the SQE on diversity and inclusion. We will monitor progress closely through our regulatory performance framework.

“Looking at the bigger picture, it is essential that the SQE is not seen as a panacea for the full range of ambitions that the SRA has and that we support. We look forward to seeing how the regulator develops education and training to ensure the ongoing competence of solicitors throughout their careers and maintain professionalism. If the SRA realises its objectives, it should contribute to creating a legal sector that better meets the needs of the society it serves.”

Notes for editors:

  1. The LSB’s decision is available on the LSB’s website.
  2. The LSB is required by Part 3 of Schedule 4 of the Legal Services Act 2007 (the Act) to review and grant or refuse applications by approved regulators to make alterations to their regulatory arrangements.
  3. The LSB may only refuse an application to alter regulatory arrangements (or introduce new ones) if it is satisfied that one or more of the grounds for refusal in paragraph 25 of Schedule 4, including the grounds for refusal set out in paragraph 25(3)(b). In this instance, no grounds for refusal have arisen.
  4. The SRA proposes to introduce the SQE from September 2021.

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