This autumn marks a new era for aspiring solicitors: the dawn of the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE). We are not exaggerating when we say that the SQE is hugely concerning for us as an organisation.
The Justice Committee recently reported its concerns for the sustainability of the legal aid sector almost a decade after LASPO (The future of legal aid. Third report of session 2021–22
, HC 70, 27 July 2021). In our last column (June 2021 Legal Action
17), we spoke of the need for respite and recovery among junior practitioners who are exhausted after a tough year of pandemic working with longer hours than ever and increased exposure to trauma.
Even before the pandemic, we were concerned about the impact of the SQE on diversity and social mobility in the profession. Now, the situation is even worse.
What is the SQE?
Under the SQE, to qualify as solicitors candidates will need to complete a degree in any subject (or equivalent), two years of qualifying work experience (QWE), and pass the SQE, a series of exams divided into two stages. Candidates will not be required to have undertaken any QWE prior to sitting the exams but they will not be treated as qualified solicitors until both the exams and the two years’ QWE have been completed. The cost of sitting the SQE exams will be £3,980. This does not include the cost of any preparation courses. Of course, any person attempting to take the exams without having completed a preparation course will be working at a significant disadvantage.
At the University of Law, the SQE parts 1 and 2 preparation course can be studied as an ‘LLM in Legal Practice’ costing £16,500 in London. This fee does not include the cost of the exam, which is payable separately. Alternatively, ULaw’s preparation courses can be studied separately at £5,500 each, saving a third of the overall cost, but unlike their colleagues on the LLM, students on these courses will not have access to postgraduate student finance. So if aspiring solicitors seek to fund their studies by adding to their student debt, they pay a hefty surcharge. This clearly risks disadvantaging students from poorer backgrounds.
BPP has not yet announced the costs of its courses. BARBRI is offering an SQE 1 prep course for £2,999 and an SQE 2 prep course for £3,499 or £2,999 for SQE 1 alumni. Even with this lower-cost course, which would not attract postgraduate student loans, the total cost with exams included still reaches £10,000.
YLAL is concerned that the SQE fails in its aim to reduce the high up-front costs of training towards qualification as a solicitor. In some cases it increases them, with students paying over £20,000 for prep courses and exams. These exorbitant costs will hamper the ability of those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds to access the profession. This is particularly likely in the legal aid sector, where junior wages are low, attrition is high and even specialist lawyers with decades of experience earn far less than their counterparts in other fields.
In addition, the two years of QWE required can be gained in up to four organisations and include paid and unpaid work. This causes us two concerns: first, that it will lead to a lack of consistency in supervision, which is vital for competence and confidence; and second, that the system is ripe for abuse by unscrupulous employers.
Is there an alternative?
Over the past six months, we have been working hard with other organisations to find ways to mitigate the impact of SQE. This month, we are launching a programme of blogs, articles, events and information packs on SQE in an attempt to raise awareness and to encourage commercial law firms to fund courses for social welfare lawyers. Some organisations have been keen to support this, but others have been more hesitant.
Tellingly, we have regularly been asked, in a well-meaning way, why social welfare lawyers need to qualify as solicitors. Why can’t we just rely on paralegals, caseworkers and advisers to do the work? The question shows a fundamental misunderstanding of how the legal aid sector works and the role that solicitors play. It has made us realise that there is a lack of awareness of the scale of the recruitment and retention crisis, which will only deepen as more experienced social welfare solicitors end their practices, with grave implications not just for our clients as individuals but for the rule of law and access to justice more generally.
We will keep plugging away and building connections, but this exercise has given us pause for thought on how best to educate the wider sector on the need for qualified social welfare lawyers.