Bryan Scant has concerns about the implications of the solicitors qualifying exam for access to the profession

As most readers will know, the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) is proposing an overhaul of the way in which individuals qualify as a solicitor, whereby everyone will have to sit a universal test, the solicitors qualifying exam (SQE), to qualify.

There are no entrance requirements, which means there is no need to undertake a degree, nor indeed any graduate-level education or the legal practice course (LPC).

The SRA has provided a consultation paper which the Junior Lawyers Division of the Law Society (JLD) has replied to, outlining our concerns. This article focuses on just one aspect: the impact that the proposed changes will have on access to the profession.

The JLD expects that most entrants will still need a degree and the LPC, as well as the SQE; therefore the process will be more expensive, not less.

The SRA’s position is that by removing the requirement for entrants to demonstrate a graduate level of education and take the LPC, it is reducing the need to incur the expense of undertaking these courses.

However, the regulator has also stated that the level of the exam should be set at post-graduate level. The argument is therefore circular: on the one hand, no level of formal education is required, but on the other, you will need to be at graduate level to pass. How does the SRA propose that you attain this level of knowledge without undertaking formal education?

The answer from the SRA is that many current LPC providers will offer courses to assist students in sitting the SQE, which we expect will come with the same hefty price tag as the LPC.

At present, the LPC is a necessary course that potential solicitors are required to sit. Although expensive, funding is available through banks by way of career and professional development loans. If there is no requirement to undertake a vocational post-graduate course, will banks recognise the rebranded course? The JLD is concerned that the course will no longer be eligible for this type of funding, and the SRA has provided no indication that it intends to talk to banks about this.

Many firms have stated that they will still require their trainees to hold a degree and an LPC (or equivalent course). This means the cost of the SQE (which will be in the thousands of pounds) will be in addition to the LPC fees, thereby increasing the overall expense.

Even without a course, how are prospective entrants going to find thousands of pounds to pay for the SQE? In addition, those with limited means will not have the ability to fund resits should they fail the exams, whereas those who can afford it can keep paying the exam fee until they pass. The SRA has told us that there will be an unlimited number of resits permitted.

The JLD believes that these proposals will do nothing to help remove the perception that the legal profession is an ‘old boys’ club’. The profession should be one that promotes diversity and inclusion, and the SRA’s irresponsible regulatory proposal is standing in the way.

Bryan Scant is vice chair of the Junior Lawyers Division

This article was first published by Solicitors Journal on 22 March 2016 and is reproduced by kind permission.