The impact of SRA’s SQE proposals on social welfare lawyering
Victoria Speed is Joint Director of Pro Bono & CSR at BPP University Law School. She is responsible for BPP Law School’s Pro Bono Centre that facilitates around 30 projects which provide legal advice and education services to the most vulnerable in society. Law students volunteer to deliver the services under the supervision of qualified solicitors. In April 2017, the Solicitors Regulatory Authority (”SRA”) confirmed the introduction of the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (“SQE”). In this article, Victoria considers the SQE proposals from the perspective of clients of social welfare lawyers.
The SQE will launch in September 2020 at the earliest. There is much debate about the appropriateness, or otherwise, of the SRA’s proposals for achieving the objectives that they have set, namely to ensure high standards in the legal profession and ensure that all entering the profession are fit to practise. As Director of the Pro Bono Centre, my concerns about the proposals focus on the risk, as they are drafted, of them failing to meet their objectives in the area of social welfare law and I am uneasy about what is missing from the framework proposed.
The SQE framework
The new SQE framework proposes assessment at SQE1 stage in the following areas:
- Principles of Professional Conduct, Public and Administrative Law, and the Legal Systems of England and Wales
- Dispute Resolution in Contract or Tort
- Property Law and Practice
- Commercial and Corporate Law and Practice
- Wills and the Administration of Estates and Trusts
- Criminal Law and Practice
At SQE2, candidates must choose two practice contexts from the following list:
- Criminal Practice
- Dispute Resolution
- Wills and the Administration of Estates and Trusts
- Commercial and Corporate Practice
Students will also have to complete a period of qualifying legal work experience. Currently it is proposed that students will be able to complete the work experience in up to four different work environments including in pro bono organisations so long as their work is supervised by a solicitor or is in a workplace regulated by the SRA.
As someone with over ten years’ experience of pro bono delivery, I am of the strong opinion that there are some glaring omissions in the list of practice areas covered in the proposed assessment. There is no requirement, or option, to study employment, human rights, immigration, housing, family or welfare benefits. It is therefore not envisaged that students will study any one of these areas of law for assessment purposes, regardless of the area of law they wish to practise in, or, indeed, the area of law that they gain experience in.
These proposals could potentially alter the landscape of legal services in social welfare law for years to come.
Potential obstacles of the proposals meeting requirements
The SRA believes there is no need for social welfare law such as employment or family in any assessment. “The SQE’s purpose is to check core knowledge and skills and, through that, give assurance that successful candidates have the ability to develop expertise in other specialist areas where necessary”. The SQE believes this creates “a new freedom for the profession and universities to collaborate in the training they think their firm or their sector needs, without unnecessary interference from the regulator.”*
I admire the positivity in this message but there are some harsh realities in this scenario. If a student has to pay £x for a course to become a lawyer and that course contains 6 core areas of expertise, what will motivate him or her to specialise in one outside of the core area? There will always be a few who are committed to a life in social welfare law, whatever the cost and at whatever price. However, with many years at BPP University Law School behind me, I’ve come across students on the LPC for a multitude of reasons including the intellectual challenge, the money available in the profession and, thankfully, making a difference. Those inclined to “make a difference” or with an open mind about finding out which area to specialise in, take some of their options at LPC level in subjects including employment law and immigration and participate in pro bono projects in a range of subject areas. They then discover a passion and pursue this as a career having made an informed choice about the area most suited to them. You could say they fall into social welfare law “by happy accident”. Unless there is scope to elect options in social welfare law or time in studies to participate in pro bono, social welfare law will not gain lawyers who arrive in this sector ‘by accident’.
It could be argued that SRA is supporting exposure of students to social welfare law as they are able to gain legal work experience in any area of law and in pro bono and in law clinics where the focus is often in social welfare law. However, students who spend two years gaining work experience in family law, in employment law and so on, in the pro bono context, will still have to complete the SQE2 assessment in areas unrelated to their work experience, namely in those listed as being assessed in SQE2 above. This presents yet another barrier to entry into this sector and, in my view, the number of new lawyers entering the social welfare sector will inevitably fall.
For those that do decide to enter the sector, who will assist them in feeling confident, prepared and, most importantly, trained sufficiently to meet the SRA’s objectives of displaying the highest standards and fitness to practice? The SRA may argue that there is a freedom with firms and education providers to collaborate to provide training but who do they think will pay for this?
Maybe the students will find the money? Students who enter the social welfare sector are, with some exceptions, not doing so for the money. The NQ salaries of the city firms are not their NQ or partner level reality. Yet, my interpretation of the proposals is that students keen to become family lawyers, for example, may have to pay additional money for some extra course providing academic preparation, simply to be the lawyers they want to be and, frankly, that the public need them to be. This when they do not have the same salary curve as their commercial peers. Alongside the additional money, these students will also have to commit additional time not actually earning whilst their commercially focused peers are already in the workplace.
Maybe the SRA envisages that the freedom of collaboration will see law firms and NGOS funding a new training regime for their future lawyers? I cannot speak for these organisations but, I’ve read and heard enough to assume, with some confidence, that there is no money available in these organisations to cover this. The cost of so called ‘freedom’ will likely have far reaching consequences.
The reality of this additional cost and responsibility on this vulnerable area of the profession might mean that less firms ultimately operate in this area and that less lawyers enter the sector. Knowledge of laws and the specialist skills required will diminish and the most vulnerable consumers of legal services will be left with no guarantees at all of the lawyer they meet having the high standards and being fit to practise currently promoted by the SRA as the very reasons for reform. At a time where legal aid is at an all-time low, this has huge potential to impact on access to justice.
This is contrary to the SRA’s regulatory objectives set out in section 1 of the Legal Services Act. Clause 3 of this section apportions responsibility to the SRA for “improving access to justice”. It is time for the SRA to acknowledge this obligation and act on it.