The SRA's proposed exam will "dilute the standard" of solicitor qualification and harm the legal profession in England and Wales, says the Law Society body which represents junior lawyers.
In letters sent to the Justice Committee and the Legal Services Board, the Junior Lawyers Division Chair Amy Clowrey blasted the new Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE)*, citing criticisms from Clyde & Co, Linklaters and legal education providers.
In July this year the SRA said it planned to ditch a proposed written test in SQE part 1, which would result in that exam consisting entirely of multiple-choice questions, with no requirement for candidates to write a word. The SRA said it considered dropping the written skills element after its pilot test revealed that black, asian and ethnic minority candidates performed worse than white students.
In its letter to the Justice Committee, the JLD said that it feared the SRA's proposal to move away "from the academic, essay-based means of assessment of legal knowledge" in SQE part 1 to multiple-choice questions would negatively affect "the quality of people entering the profession". The JLD also predicted that "the reputation of the legal industry in England and Wales" would suffer and become a "less appealing" jurisdiction choice post-Brexit.
"We have strong concerns on whether [legal knowledge] can be adequately tested and assessed by using multiple choice assessments" wrote Clyde & Co in a previous consultation about the SQE cited by the JLD. Clydes added "We also have strong concerns that individuals entering the profession under the new proposals may do so knowing substantially less law [as] the proposed SQE1 assessments do not cover the current breadth of the GDL, LPC and PSC combined".
"We fundamentally disagree that the proposed SQE is a robust and effective measure of competence" Linklaters said in a consultation, also cited by the JLD. The University of Oxford also expressed concern over the multiple choice format saying that it was "of no value in determining whether an individual would be able to give competent advice in situations in which the law is unclear".
The SRA has to make a second application to the Legal Services Board in July/August next year before approval for the new exam can be granted. The JLD's letter to the Legal Services Board requested that the SRA undertakes further "meaningful consultations with stakeholders affected" before the application is made.
And it seems that the SRA still has some convincing to do. Chris Nichols, director of regulation and policy at the Legal Services Board, released a paper last month outlining the next steps. Nichols proposed that the LSB sends a list of key issues to the SRA, to be fully addressed in the regulator's next application. Nichols set out themes that are likely to need further probing, such as the qualifying work experience, affordability for candidates and equality/diversity inclusion. Regarding the exams, he said that it "is important that the SQE provides a fully valid assessment of competence and that quality, and perceptions of quality, are not compromised".
"We know that there remain a number of concerns for stakeholders" wrote Dr Helen Phillips, chair of the LSB, following its board meeting in October. She added "our overarching desire to proactively gather and understand such views carries over into any discussion of the SQE."
A spokesman for the SRA was more sanguine when he told RollOnFriday: “As we develop the SQE ahead of introduction in two years’ time, we are working with all key stakeholders, including the JLD, to get the design and delivery right.”
* The SRA plans to replace the current training regime in 2021, sweeping aside the requirement for a training contract, the GDL and the LPC. Instead, aspiring solicitors will need the following to qualify: (i) A degree or "equivalent qualification" which can be in a non-law subject. (ii) Pass legal examinations SQE part 1 (legal knowledge) and SQE part 2 (practical skills such as advocacy). (iii) Two years' work experience, which doesn't have to be in a law firm but could be in a law centre and/or university law clinics. (iv) Pass a "character and suitability test" (no record of dishonesty etc).