Speech

Reforming the legal education and training framework: competency, diversity and innovation

Location: Glaziers Hall, 9 Montague Close

Delegates at this Westminster Legal Policy Forum seminar will consider the future of the legal education and training framework in England and Wales, at a time of wide-ranging reform. The discussion is timed to consider next steps for key programmes such as Training for Tomorrow. Martin Coleman, Chair of the Education and Training Committee made a keynote address to delegates.

Speech to the Westminster Legal Policy Forum - Coleman, M

Good morning. It's a pleasure to be here today.

I have spent six years as a member of the Board of the Solicitors Regulation Authority and am now coming to the end of my final term. One of the less desirable skills one acquires from membership of a regulatory body is the gradual adoption of the language of regulators and an assumption that everyone understands what one means by that language.

In the education and training world 'competence' has a very specific meaning. It demonstrates that one has the skills and attributes required to fulfil a specific function. Set standards below this level and the public are at risk. Set them above and one is imposing unnecessary barriers to entry. Out in the world of professional practice, competence may have a rather different connotation. To say that solicitor X is competent may be perceived as damning him or her with faint praise – I don't want a merely competent solicitor, I want a good one!

So I would like to make something very clear. High standards are essential for practice as a solicitor. A solicitor must demonstrate a level of knowledge and skills that are commensurate with the responsibility that goes with protecting individual liberties; ensuring safe transactions and giving advice that underpins the effectiveness of a modern commercial economy. The competency standard we expect of solicitors and intending solicitors is a high one.

High standards are at the heart of the SRA's purpose to protect consumers and uphold the rule of law. They are therefore the fundamental objective of Training for Tomorrow, our radical programme of reform to the education and training of solicitors, which was launched at the Westminster Legal Policy Forum just over two years ago.

Since then, we have set the standard required for practice, through our Competence Statement for Solicitors which we published in April this year. This has defined what competence means for practising solicitors through our new approach to continuing competence.

Now we must look at how solicitors enter the profession and how we can ensure that all intending solicitors demonstrate the high standard of practice captured in the Competence Statement, on a consistent and rigorous basis.

Why do we need to make changes?

There is a growing body of evidence which raises concerns about consistency of standards in our current system.

This indicates a lack of comparability between different pathways and a lack of consistency within them.

When the LPC was introduced in 1993, all intending solicitors had to take it – whether you had a law degree, were a non-law graduate or a legal executive, all routes led to this point. The LPC was highly prescribed.

Fast forward to 2015, and the landscape has changed. There are lots of ways of qualifying which didn't exist in 1993: the QLTS, apprenticeships, equivalent means – and they have no points of comparability. The LPC has itself become far more diverse, with different length courses, different forms of assessment, varied contexts and firm specific training. This flexibility is a good thing – but it does create a challenge for us. How do we know that all solicitors, qualifying in these different ways, are all reaching the same, high standard?

At the same time, those bodies responsible for standards in higher education have expressed concerns about whether university awards are consistent over time and between different institutions. The Higher Education Academy and the Higher Education Funding Council have gone on record stating that:

  • The current external examiner system does not deliver assurance of the standards of awards made to students or their broad comparability; and
  • There is evidence of grade inflation over time.

So far as solicitors' training is concerned, we know that student performance varies between different providers. On the LPC pass rates for full time students vary from 96% to 33%. There are many reasons which might explain this: cohorts of differing ability; teaching of variable quality; or different assessment standards. But we cannot be sure what the actual reason is. We cannot even be sure whether it is a good or bad thing for a provider to have a high pass rate – does a high pass rate indicate strong entry standards or excellent teaching or less rigour in assessment or something else?

It's not just the academic stage which causes concern. Over 2,000 firms recruit trainee solicitors. But with less than two per cent of trainees failing to be admitted at the end of their period of recognised training and no mechanism to enable firms to benchmark the standards they apply to sign-off trainees, how can we be sure that all trainees meet the high standards we require in order to qualify?

Overall, the conclusion we have reached is that we cannot be sure that all intending solicitors are reaching a consistently high standard. This is not fair on students and does not protect consumers.

There is evidence which suggests the standards of service and quality of legal advice sometimes fall below the level that can reasonably be expected by consumers. In each of the last 4 years, around 18% of firms faced a negligence claim and about 10% of firms paid out on a claim. In 2014-15, over 800 complaints against solicitors were upheld by the Legal Ombudsman. The SRA Compensation Fund paid out over £23.8 million in the year to 31 October 2014. While we cannot point to a direct causal link between these failures and inadequacies of the education and training system it is not unreasonable to assume that better and more consistent standards in education and training will reduce the risk of things going wrong.

A new Solicitors Qualifying Examination

We believe these reasons create a compelling case for a new mechanism to assess the competence of all intending solicitors on a consistent and rigorous basis, regardless of the pathway to qualification which they have followed. And therefore yesterday we launched a consultation on a proposal to introduce a new Qualifying Examination for all intending solicitors. This will test knowledge of core legal topics such as contract, tort and crime and the key skills needed to be a competent solicitor including written and oral communication abilities.

We have taken expert advice and closely observed changes to assessment in other high-stakes professions including medicine, accountancy and pharmacy. It is clear to us that the new examination will provide a better technical assessment than at present, catching-up with best practice in other professions. The assessment we propose will be rigorous and demanding and will strengthen confidence in the solicitor title by ensuring high standards of practice.

Entry requirements

The consultation which we are embarked upon is centred on the issue of assessment. We are inviting comments on the concept of a uniform assessment common to all intending solicitors and the form and content of that assessment.

Later in 2016 we shall commence a separate consultation on the pathways to qualification and how far, if at all, we should prescribe those pathways. However, it is right to make a few observations now on pathways because, understandably, the pathways are of great interest.

One of the distinct features of the English and Welsh system is the importance placed on obtaining practical workplace experience prior to qualification. Not only is this an important means of acquiring a number of the skills that will be tested in the qualifying examination, it may also be that certain skills, such as the ability to organise a practice, can be best tested in the workplace environment. We are therefore minded to retain a pre-qualification workplace training requirement.

There are potential benefits in freeing up education and training providers from excessive regulatory oversight over matters such as the timing, structure and order in which subjects and skills are learned. Ceasing to specify the three stages of training, or to prescribe the LPC, could encourage education and training providers to integrate different aspects of the study of law in new ways. There are therefore significant potential benefits in terms of innovation, costs and quality of training if the market were allowed to respond more freely to the opportunities offered by the new assessment regime.

The new standard for qualification as a solicitor will be at least equivalent to graduate level and we would expect that the vast majority of those taking the assessment will have a degree. As now, there will be some who will be able to acquire the high level of knowledge and skills required in other ways. So there are examples under the current system of individuals who started out as legal secretaries; qualified through the CILEX route and ended up as partners. The quality and reputation of the solicitors profession is enhanced if able individuals, regardless of their background and financial means, are able to meet the high standards expected of solicitors.

The new examination will ensure that all successful candidates (apprentices, law graduates, graduates in other subjects, other lawyers seeking qualification as solicitors) will be able to demonstrate that they have the same high level of competence and this can only enhance confidence in the profession.

Conclusion

There is strong evidence that a new method of assessment for intending solicitors would give greater consistency of outcome, and therefore be a better assurance of continued high quality, than the existing system is able to offer.

The proposal on which we are consulting will ensure that all new solicitors are assessed on the same basis and against the same standards. Not only will this provide an assurance of quality, it will also enable all newly qualified solicitors, regardless of the institution at which they studied, or the pathway they followed, or their personal characteristics to be assessed and compared on a common basis. This is the best way to achieve the strong and effective legal profession envisaged in the Legal Services Act.

These proposals are of critical importance to the future of the profession, to consumers of legal services and to the individuals who aspire to qualify as a solicitor. We will be holding webinars, roadshows and workshops to provide an opportunity to debate the important questions raised in our consultation. I would urge everyone to take part.

Thank you.