The SQE: A Year On
A year after our first article concerning the widescale changes announced with regard to the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE), we are still yet one further year away from its implementation. There is no speculation any longer concerning when the exam will come into fruition, with the SRA having stated that it will launch on 1st September 2021 and the first assessment to take place in November of the same year. In fact, the final SQE Application was submitted in September 2020 to the Legal Services board, with a decision expected in October. The guidance, for those still considering the current route of qualification, is that you may continue this if, prior to the start of September 2021, you have:
- Accepted an offer to start a QLD
- Started a conversion course (CPE/GDL/PGDL);
- Accepted an offer of a training contract, even if you have not started or applied for a conversion course;
- Deferred your place on a conversion course for the academic year 20/21 to the academic year 21/22 due to COVID-19 (and you will need to keep evidence of this)
You may also, regardless of whether you have started, opt to switch onto the new SQE route, providing further flexibility. This is a welcome reassurance for those who have yet to enter into the LPC or alternatives; however, by the time the SQE comes in, and you have not yet started on your qualification route, then you will have to proceed under the new Exam. These clarifications, however, are not the end of the story.
While in 2019, it was confirmed that the fees for the SQE were to be broken down across the two exams (SQE1 and SQE2) that formed the full qualification, the SRA merely estimated costs between £3,000-£4,500. These, naturally, were still far less than the current LPC and a welcome reduction and standardisation of entrance into the legal profession. We now have final confirmation of the costs for each exam from the SRA, with the total fee being introduced in September 2021 being £3,980 for both assessments. This will cover: the SQE1, with a fee of £1558, assessing candidates’ functional legal knowledge through the use of 180 multiple choice questions; and the SQE2, with a fee of £2,422 for the written and oral tasks testing practical knowledge, advocacy, interviewing clients, drafting and case analysis. These fees, however, do not include training costs, which was expected.
Diversity and Flexibility
It is hard to deny the access opportunities that the new SQE presents, with both its expanded work experience options and reduced costs, but some concern remained as to Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI). Since 2017, the SRA has been working from their EDI Risk Assessment, running pilots, drawing from thousands of stakeholders and inviting independent analysis from the Bridge Group who specialise in social equality research. In particular, the Bridge Group reported that while the new SQE likely cannot solve all diversity issues within the legal profession, it will certainly go some lengths to address them.
There is no silver bullet to address diversity in the legal profession, but the SQE could help.Nicholas Miller, Chief Executive of the Bridge Group
The current system is comparably fragmented and expensive. The SQE could reform the training market and give people more choice, while sharing standardised data has powerful potential to give the sector a better basis to understand – and address – diversity issues.
With the aims to become a common assessment achieving the objectives of validity, reliability and cost-effectiveness, the SRA appears confident in mitigating risks; however, the Bridge Group further highlight the need to make sure good information and data analysis is available for aspiring solicitors and the sharing of this pivotal to achieve long-running equality. There is also the issue of buy-in from training providers to use this information to promote greater diversity. While the latter issue is less in the hands of the SRA, it would behoove them to forge relationships with key employers in order to ensure this.
In order to mitigate the above, and other risks, the SRA has committed to providing clear information concerning funding options, taking into account disability schemes and resources. In furtherance to this, they intend to pursue funding provisions in tandem with the Government and the Law society; however, in light of the Covid-19 pandemic and the economic deficit, whether this will come to any meaningful fruition remains to be seen.
Covid-19 and Transition
In order to provide as much flexibility and choice as possible, the SRA has designed a series of transitional arrangements, taking into account those already on their way to becoming a solicitor. As an issue voiced last year, with the announcement of the SQE, this is heartening to see and will likely assuage the fears of those in the process already. These arrangements will apply to anyone who, prior to 1st September 2021, has completed, begun or accepted a place for: a Qualifying Law Degree (QLD); a Graduate Diploma in Law; the LPC; or, a period of recognised training (a training contract). Anyone under this banner has until the end of December 2032 to qualify under these existing routes. This was already indicated last year, but the codification of this transition period, and what it means for current aspiring practitioners, is now set out in Regulation 11 of the SRA Authorisation of Individuals Regulations; this is a welcome offering of security and clarity for which this SQE introduction seems to be upholding throughout.
Further to the above, in light of the Covid-19 pandemic, the SRA have responded to universities’ concerns over course running periods by extending the validation of QLDs to any courses which start before 31st December 2021. Naturally, the impacts of Covid-19 are yet to be properly understood, but this extension will likely provide at the least a small buffer to universities already managing its impacts, as well as the phasing out of the LPC. Paul Philip, the Chief Executive of the SRA, echoes this sentiment:
It will be some time before the longer-term implications of the Covid-19 pandemic are properly understood but we want to give some extra time to prepare for SQE for those who need it. Our changes to the transition arrangements provide more flexibility for both students and universities, as we introduce SQE in 2021.
SQE1: Access vs Appropriate Challenge:
Harkening back to the original post in 2019 concerning the SQE, it was highlighted, by reference to a Legal Cheek article, that the multiple choice question format was both patronising and far too easy. Of course, this was merely a pilot and so hard to entirely extrapolate from, as well as being the opinions of a relative few. However, the SRA have now provided a sample of the SQE1 questions, showing what can be expected for those looking to take it in 2021. The questions are varied, covering broad, disparate topics, thus providing a staging ground to gauge the wider knowledge of a candidate. Their practical nature also shows a due regard for the importance of this in practice and meets the objectives sought by the SRA, as mentioned above. For example:
A decision is made by the Court of Appeal (Civil Division) in favour of the claimant. The
defendant wishes to obtain permission to appeal.
Which of the following courts have the power to grant permission to appeal?
A. The Court of Appeal only.
B. The Supreme Court only.
C. The House of Lords only.
D. The Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court.
E. The Court of Appeal and the House of Lords.
This seems particularly simple and this slight leading style of answers is present throughout; however, as previously pointed out, the SQE1 is likely to present a way of testing broad knowledge and the ability to think practically on one’s feet. As such, difficulty does not always equate with appropriate challenge and the assessment’s objectives; however, in June 2020, the Junior Lawyers Division of The Law Society (JLD) called for a delay in the SQE’s implementation. They were contacted by a paralegal with no formal legal training, who received a 43% score, and a separate paralegal with a QLD but no LPC, who completed 30 questions in 30 minutes, received a score of 60%. This may show that the SQE1 Multiple Choice Questions (MCQs) do not demonstrate a knowledge of the law, but rather common sense. The issue here is the balancing of accessibility and standardisation of a test against the need to provide a suitable standard of question. The need to take into account the thoughts of the broader legal sector and protect the legal profession is understandable, but, as argued earlier by the Bridge Group, the need for clear data and accessibility in these exams is paramount to recover data by which to increase diversity and protect those candidates wishing to enter said profession. There is perhaps some argument that these backlashes against the MCQ format display the very elitism that has plagued the legal profession for some time now. It is a challenging balancing act for the SRA, but their approach and risk assessments seem to portray a willingness to listen and walk the tightrope here.
Preparatory Course Updates
Little appears to have overtly changed since 2019 with regard to preparatory course, though Nottingham Law School (NLS) seems to be leading the field. The NLS has confirmed that it is rolling out a new course to prepare students for the SQE when it comes into force in September 2021, with Nottingham Trent University’s Legal Advice Centre to play a pivotal role. By contextualising the law for the SQE1 as well as equipping students with those client skills for the SQE2, it represents a unique chance for a ‘teaching firm’. The University of Law and BPP also appear poised to introduce a preparatory course, though information as to what form this will take or when it will be rolled out are sparse. This seems indicative of many universities, but the lack of clear course content may way be the result of the Covid-19 upheaval to the education sector. With student numbers lowered for the 2020/1 academic year and increases in deferrals, it does seem crucial for universities to prepare for an influx of students in the academic year 2021/2 parallel to the SQE’s introduction.
Please let us know what your thoughts are as to the SQE updates in the comments below. Do the MCQs seem too simplistic, or a leveler for further assessment? Are you intending to wait for the introduction of the SQE in 2021 to begin your further legal study? As ever, will make sure to keep you appraised of any further developments as they are made known.