The Social Welfare Solicitors Qualification Fund 2022
(SWSQF) is an initiative by the City of London Law Society
and Young Legal Aid Lawyers (YLAL) to fund aspiring social welfare solicitors to take the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE). The scheme seeks to overcome the financial barrier that many underrepresented and marginalised aspiring solicitors face when trying to qualify in the social welfare sector.
Solicitors Qualifying Examination
The SQE was introduced on 1 September 2021 as the new way to qualify as a solicitor. YLAL has campaigned around concerns about the high costs of the SQE and whether such expense will be yet another barrier to qualification for talented candidates who simply cannot afford the cost of qualifying as a legal aid lawyer.
Social welfare law has long been experiencing recruitment problems. There are many reasons for this, including a lack of career progression, the extortionate costs of qualification and poor salaries. These issues result in the exclusion of those who do not have access to independent means or become burnt out because they cannot sustain working, studying and sitting exams simultaneously.
The current costs of the exam alone (which have recently increased) are £1,622 for SQE1 and £2,493 for SQE2. These costs are per assessment and the increase means an extra £135 for candidates sitting both assessments, plus any preparatory course fees. Preparatory courses do not attract postgraduate student finance; the total cost, including the exams, is likely to reach well over £10,000 per candidate.
Social Welfare Solicitors Qualification Fund
YLAL, in collaboration with the City of London Law Society and BARBRI, has raised over £200,000, with firms such as Allen & Overy, White & Case, Clifford Chance, Eversheds Sutherland, Freshfields and other corporate giants contributing to the fund.
To be eligible for the scheme, candidates must already be working in social welfare law. They need to have a UK degree. In addition to this, and to meet the scheme’s social mobility aims, they must not have access to funding or familial loans exceeding £1,000, and no more than £15,000 in savings.
YLAL is very proud that 22 applicants were successful in applying for the fund and are now starting their journey towards qualifying as social welfare solicitors. The awardees are:
•Giulia Lima Bianchi;
•Thea Grattidge; and
Their work ranges from immigration, housing, and welfare benefits to police actions. Their clients include some of the most vulnerable in society, many of whom would not be able to get advice elsewhere. One awardee said of their work:
Quite often, the clients that are supported don’t understand how to navigate the system and sit on the margins of society whilst not getting adequate support from the agencies they require support from.
It is clear there are fundamental problems with recruitment, retention and progression within the legal aid sector, caused by years of underfunding, a misunderstanding of the importance of social welfare practitioners, and a failure to appreciate the role they have in providing essential legal advice to vulnerable people in our society. Law Centres and other social welfare legal service providers feel this crisis acutely, and the barriers faced by aspiring practitioners attempting to qualify create a shortage of quality legal advice available to people who really need access to justice. Many providers have had to reduce or stop providing assistance in certain areas of law because their funding is unsustainable.
The SWSQF will not solve the multitude of challenges faced by the sector, but YLAL wants this scheme to encourage more people to pursue a career in social welfare law without the financial burden that qualification brings. With our partners in the fund, we believe that the SWSQF could have a huge impact on the future of the social welfare legal advice sector, by progressing the careers of committed practitioners and therefore promoting, facilitating and sustaining access to justice for members of the public.
We see the fund as an encouraging example of cross-sector work, with many City law firms contributing and collaborating with the legal aid sector to help social welfare lawyers to qualify via the SWSQF. Such cooperation is to be embraced and is promising in a time of uncertainty for the legal profession and wider society.