This article is an opinion piece by Alex Jorosz, for information purposes only
UPDATE - 20 JUNE 2020:
It has come to my attention that the current wait times for admission overseas have now been delayed for up to a year. One of those jurisdictions is New York where, from the moment of application for admission, the processing takes between 6-12 months due to the pandemic, therefore, disadvantaging MCT-exempt individuals who were unable to attempt the Bar exam in 2020.
It will be impossible for those taking the Bar in February 2021 to be sworn in before the current SRA deadline of 31/08/2021 (if MCT-exempt). Furthermore, considering the situation in the US at the moment and the uncontrollable spread of the virus, MCT-takers might be affected as well.
The QLTS is an exam for foreign lawyers wanting to cross qualify in England. It is administered by Kaplan and is made up of two parts: MCT (Black letter law) and OSCE (Practice).
Most aspiring solicitors have three options to qualify in England; options that all of us see at the law fairs and networking events every time that we attend one. These are:
a) the traditional training contract which, for many, is impossible to secure due to very high demand and not enough available places;
b) equivalent means for which one must do specific work under the direction of another solicitor for 2 years, and
c) pass NY or CA Bar followed by the QLTS to become dual-qualified.
Equivalent means route is difficult due to the high burden of proof and the fact that most who did not obtain a training contract are mature students who, like me, hold the most senior legal position in their company and not working under the direction of a solicitor. This is why the QLTS is the only option for many of us. Option, which due to the delays caused by the pandemic and the arbitrary policy of the SRA, is being more difficult to achieve.
I am an LLB and LPC graduate. My intention was to pass the New York Bar in July 2020, QLTS in November 2020 and qualify in England and Wales by January 2021. I started my bar prep with Barbri in September 2019 with 200 other participants, many of whom intended to qualify in England.
Due to the global pandemic, the NY Bar exam was postponed to February 2021. Bearing in mind the introduction of the SQE in September 2021, I suspected that there may be issues passing the QLTS in time. This situation led me to my own little investigation into deadlines.
The last MCT will be administered in the summer of 2021. Those who attempt it then will have an additional year (until summer 2022) to pass OSCE (“Transition Period”). However, the Transition Period DOES NOT apply to those exempt from the MCT requirement such as LPC graduates. MCT-exempt applicants have to complete their OSCE in the summer of 2021, the latest, which leaves us with two sittings in November 2020 and summer 2021. Those MCT-exempt individuals MUST apply for admission by 31 August 2021 and in order to do so, one must be fully qualified and admitted overseas.
This creates an issue for those of us who are unable to pass the Bar in 2020 due to the pandemic. This means that our last chance to qualify in England will be the bar exam (for NY and CA) in February 2021. If we fail or if due to the pandemic the exam is postponed till July 2021, we will be unable to qualify in England at all as our results won’t come in before 31 August 2021, therefore we will not be qualified foreign lawyers before the deadline for admission application in England. This means that we will be out of pocket for the cost of the LPC, Bar preparation course, and the OSCE exam (this is in excess of £40,000).
Those exempt from the MCT requirement are already put at a disadvantage as we are not allowed to benefit from the Transition Period and have only until 31 August 2021 to apply for admission. However, even the MCT-takers are in trouble as due to the delays and cancellations of the exams abroad, they do not have an opportunity to prepare for the MCT unless they study for both, overseas bar examination and the MCT, at the same time which is not feasible because most students have full-time jobs and it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to prepare for 2 life-changing exams in two completely different jurisdictions all whilst going to work, vulnerable, shielding and taking care of other family-related obligations. Furthermore, studying for 2 exams is unlikely to result in success in either one which will increase the already challenging time commitment and financial and mental pressure.
This information is not easily accessible to the applicants and the QLTS providers do not seem to be aware of this either and keep advising students that they can apply for admission at any time after passing QLTS. Having spoken to a few of them, despite numerous meetings and guidance from the SRA, I was informed that all were informed of the long stop rules being given to students but there was no mention that LPC students would not be treated the same as all the rest of the applicants. For example, I decided to have a one-year break between completing the LPC in 2018 and starting the NY Bar prep course. Had I known that there is a deadline, I would not have done that. Only in my own Barbri course group, there are at least 25 affected individuals who were not aware of this situation.
In the light of my findings, on 16 May 2020, I have written an official letter to the SRA (CC: Kaplan and the Law Society) challenging the current policy. I have asked for a general extension of the QLTS due to the pandemic and in the alternative, to allow MCT-exempt individuals to be treated equally and fairly and benefit from the same Transition Period allowed to the MCT-takers.
Three weeks later, I received a letter from the SRA. Unfortunately, they are unwilling to consider a policy review, in respect of the QLTS extension and those exempt from the MCT negatively impacted by the unavailability of the Transition Period, due to the global pandemic and the inequality of the current policy respectively.
The SRA proposed that the MCT-exempt individuals apply for the MCT anyway in order to benefit from the Transition Period. This idea is unreasonable as it would result in additional studying and expense from which we are exempt under the SRA’s own policy. Such a move should not be necessary under any circumstances.
The SRA has stated that they allowed the MCT-takers to benefit from the Transition Period because they made a “financial commitment” by paying the exam fee (approx. £700). I have completed the LPC with a view of passing the NY bar and subsequently completing the QLTS. This will cost me in excess of £40,000 in total and I consider this a financial commitment to the QLTS even without paying the £700 for the MCT exam specifically. Furthermore, I believe that by submitting an application for the MCT exemption we are showing our commitment to the QLTS - it is not something that we would have done without having the intention to go down that route.
The whole reason that the SQE was set up was to provide access to legal qualification to all and therefore it is not reasonable to now be disadvantaging one group over another. According to the SRA, the introduction of the SQE meant to ensure that all trainee solicitors, no matter which route they take, have the same opportunities and to ensure consistency and high standards across the board and silencing the notion that one route to qualification is better than another. The SRA also said that the SQE will make the law profession more accessible by lowering the cost of study (in comparison with the GDL and LPC.) In reality, not only not every applicant is treated the same and the only proposal by the SRA to cure that lack of equality involved spending more money by taking an exam from which many are exempt.
The extension does not have to result in the postponement of the SQE. I understand that the SRA have an obligation to roll out the SQE as soon as possible, which I note has not yet been signed off by the LSB, but there is no reason why both can’t run consecutively for a year especially as the SRA already planned for the OSCE to be available at the same time as the SQE for the MCT-takers. Furthermore, OSCE exams will continue under the current policy until 2022 for those that completed the MCT, therefore, those exempt from the MCT should be allowed to attend also. Such an allowance will not result in any additional effort for Kaplan/SRA. On the contrary, it will have commercial advantages to both, as there will be more OSCE applicants spending almost £4,000 each for an additional year.
I have further replied to the SRA setting out those points on 15 June 2020 and I currently await their response. Kaplan, the Law Society, Barbri, and leading QLTS course providers have been made aware of this situation.
QLTS route has been established to provide international lawyers with the ability to qualify in England and Wales. This has been a viable option to qualify for years and many students embarked on this path already just to face delays and barriers during the process due to the pandemic.
At this difficult time, when the exams and qualifications around the world are being postponed, there is uncertainty surrounding traveling restrictions and the fact that the NY is prioritising their own students, it would seem reasonable for the SRA to prioritise us - those who want to qualify here and those who spent a lot of money on the LPC in England already, to consider an extension of that route to qualification or at least to ensure that everyone has the same chance of success and ensuring that their regulation applies to MCT-exempted individuals.
Let’s keep our fingers crossed that the SRA listens to our pleadings and makes the right decision.