Some thoughts on the proposed SQE and its implications for the English law degree

I highly recommend Richard Moorhead’s blog on the recently published consultation by the Solicitors’ Regulation Authority on the  standardised competence assessment for all those seeking qualification as a solicitor in England and Wales. In this post I just want to add a few thoughts of my own to the conversation. I’m also conscious that the SRA’s work is of interest to a wider audience than the UK. Here in Australia, for example, the Law Admissions Consultative Committee is continuing to follow post-LETR developments in England closely. The Hong Kong Law Society has also proposed the introduction of a Common Entrance Exam, though the scope of the HK proposal is less radical, and debate has, for now, been paused and rolled into a wider review of legal education and training that is now underway.* In this post I intend to reflect only the possible implications of the SRA proposal for the English qualifying law degree (QLD) – not least because I want avoid anything that might appear to pre-judge the Hong Kong debate.

The SRA consultation paper starts from three possible, broad, models for a potential qualification regime (para 11):

  • Option 1: Continuing to prescribe a limited number of pathways to qualification, the details of which we specify, which are aligned to the Statement of Solicitor Competence Statement, Statement of Legal Knowledge, and Threshold Standard

  • Option 2: Rather than prescribing a limited number of pathways, authorising any training pathway developed by a training provider which enables a candidate to demonstrate they can perform the activities set out in the Statement of Solicitor Competence to the standard required in the Threshold Standard.

  • Option 3: Developing a centralised assessment of competence that all candidates are required to undertake prior to qualification, again aligned to the Statement of Solicitor Competence, Statement of Legal Knowledge and Threshold Standard.

Option 1 represents largely a continuation of the status quo; option 2, I suggest, comes closer to the base position advanced in the 2013 LETR Report, while Option 3 is the SRA’s preferred approach for reasons essentially of cost, consistency and flexibility/diversity. The paper offers some compelling arguments for its preferences, and some balanced evaluation of the options, though I felt overall that it was perhaps a little more robust in critiquing options 1 and 2 than it’s preferred option 3 – though it does also, rightly, point out that none of the options are mutually exclusive (and indeed the LETR Report could be seen as recognising the value of elements of both options 2 and 3 – the latter notably in the use of standardised clients in skills assessments).

Much of the detail (and hence the devil) of the preferred approach remains to be developed. The paper is clear that the SRA anticipates a separate two-part assessment of knowledge and skills. The modularised assessment of knowledge must be completed first, and would be assessessed via computer-based objective testing. The second part would involve standardised practical exercises akin to the standardised clinical  assessments used by medical schools and in the current Qualified Lawyer Transfer Scheme. The paper is relatively open on the question whether, and if so how much, work experience should be required before the Part 2 assessments are completed.

The proposed scope of the knowledge assessments is broad. It will encompass ethics and professional conduct, wills and probate, taxation, business law and practice, property law, torts, criminal law and evidence, criminal litigation, civil litigation, contract law, trusts and equitable wrongs, constitutional law, EU law, human rights, and the English legal system (para. 41). The assessments are to be modularised, to facilitate “integration with other education and training programmes.” There is, however, no discussion at this stage of the broader assessment framework, prerequistes and sequencing of modules, or of the frequency of assessments.

Implications for the QLD

The paper is very clear that possession of a law degree should not be a basis for any exemptions from the knowledge (or skills) requirements of the SQE. In short, if this proposal goes through, the QLD as we currently think of it is dead – at least for the solicitors’ profession.

I agree with Moorhead that, if these proposals go through, we are likely to see the creation of a more divergent education and training playing field: possibly with growing differences between traditional liberal and what Moorhead calls ‘almost practice ready’ law degrees, plus a greater variety of postgraduate and, I would add, possibly non-graduate (in structure, though potentially graduate in level) options such as apprenticeships.

The consequences of all this for the law school sector as a whole are potentially substantial, and may be very serious. They include:

Recruitment: Law has undoubtedly grown as an academic subject on the back of its professional status and recognition. Even though less than 50% (and I suspect in some post-92 law schools the proportion could be 30% or even lower) actually make it to being a solicitor, between 60%-70% appear to enter law school with solicitor/barrister ambitions. Recruitment implications of the loss of QLD status are thus both potentially significant and very hard to judge. Will regulation reshape the market for training, or will the market for training adapt as minimally as possible to the regulation? There are significant vested interests involved, including the elite law schools, and the big LPC providers who will not let a multi-million pound business simply disappear overnight. Much may depend on how the elite law firms and their ‘preferred suppliers’, the elite law schools respond to these changes, and whether they (continue to) function as a congeries of reputational interests. (The reputational risks of marginalising the law degree are not addressed in the SRA paper. In the LETR research phase, by contrast,  quite a lot was made of the reputational importance of the graduate standing of the profession in the international marketplace. Whether ‘graduateness’ without the Oxbridge or Russell group badge carries the same cachet is moot). If some form of LLB + LPC remains a significant pathway, the recruitment effects may be mitigated – at least for some parts of the sector. If it doesn’t, the future becomes infinitely more difficult to predict.

Expansion of the knowledge-base – The new knowledge base essentially represents an amalgam of the knowledge requirements of the QLD and LPC. It thus reflects the continuing influence of the reserved areas of practice and thereby excludes much of what many (especially commercial) solicitors do. For those who want to develop nearly-practice ready degrees, it might not change the game that much from the current exempting degree model. However, that assessment also depends in large part on how much current flexibility over (QLD) content is reduced by the so-far unwritten assessment framework. To expect the  academic community to vote on the options in the absence of this seems rather like asking turkeys to vote for something that may or may not be Christmas; you really would like to know first.

Doubling-up of assessment burden: those who continue to do degrees are likely to be confronted with a growing assessment burden. Under the preferred model university assessments will not count for the SQE, and it would be a radical change of policy for universities to accept entirely external assessments as part of a (concurrent) degree. Moreover, the fact that the SRA currently sees SQE assessments as both pass/fail and sitting outside the Framework for Higher Education Qualifications (FHEQ) (see paras 57-58) makes any inclusion by recognition a less, not more likely, prospect. The impact, including diversity impact, of the scale, scope, timing, frequency and cost of SQE assessments on law students specifically appears not to have been addressed at this stage.

Implications for innovation and diversity of intellectual approaches: a drift towards nearly practice ready degrees may have significant ‘unintended’ (or from the SRA’s point of view, ‘none of our concern’) consequences for academic law. Joint degrees may decline because they simply cannot address enough of the SQE ‘core’ knowledge. Unless a clear secondary market develops in SQE test preparation (a matter which in itself may have some diversity implications), universities are also likely to find themselves under some pressure to teach to the test. That is likely to (further) undermine socio-legal, theoretical or other alternative intellectual approaches to doctrinal legal analysis. (Recall that the LETR Report data highlighted the limited value professionals attached to jurisprudential or socio-legal content/ approaches.)

The anxiety has begun…

*The Hong Kong Review under the auspices of the Standing Committee on Legal Education and Training is being undertaken by a panel comprising Justice KH Woo, Professor ATH (Tony) Smith and myself.

 

‘Just Encounters’: The Minutes of Evidence Project

I spent a fascinating day at the State Library of Victoria on friday hearing about the ARC-funded ‘Minutes of Evidence’ (MoE) Project.The MoE website describes the project in these terms:

It is a unique collaboration between researchers, education experts, performance artists and community and government agencies that seeks to promote greater awareness of the effects of settler colonialism and a more open consideration of how to live together justly in the future. Through a bold, multi-disciplinary approach that brings together research, education and performance, the Minutes of Evidence project highlights the local and broader significance of the 1881 Parliamentary Coranderrk Inquiry by examining how notions of justice have been formulated, invoked and confronted over time and space, and how the enduring legacies of past injustices continue into the present – despite official responses designed to redress them – so as to foster new ways of thinking about structural justice in the present and future. 

I’d heard about the project whilst still in the UK, but this was my first opportunity to properly engage with it. The event was a day conference called ‘Just Encounters: Bringing Together Education, Arts and Research’ which showcased the work the project has been doing over the last four years to reconstruct the formal record of the Coranderrk Inquiry – the Minutes of Evidence of the project title – into a work of “verbatim theatre”, to develop a set of teaching resources on Coranderrk for teachers of history and civics in schools, and to use it as a vehicle to reflect on and engage with issues of ‘structural justice’. Structural justice, it should be said, can be seen as a sub-set of social justice, focussed in this context on redressing the historical and structural harms caused by settler colonialism.

The Coranderrk Inquiry itself was an extraordinary event for its time. Coranderrk was the name given in the 1860s to one of the most liberal and successful of the Aboriginal reserves established in the colony to receive surviving members of the Aboriginal clans that had been displaced by colonial expansion and settlement. In 1874 the sympathetic (European) manager of Coranderrk, John Green, was removed for his opposition to a plan by the so-called Board for the Protection of Aborigines to remove the Aboriginal population and release the 4000+ acres of the station for use by white settler farmers. Under the leadership of their headmen, William Barak and Thomas Bamfield (Birdarak), the Coranderrk residents mobilised into a powerful political protest movement over a period of several years. By adopting the techniques of white political (written) discourse to bring attention to their campaign for self-determination, they forced the state to take notice and set-up a Parliamentary Commission to inquire into their complaints and determine the future of the station. Before the Commissioners, the Coranderrk families succeeded in having the new manager dismissed and, ultimately, in getting Coranderrk formally recognised as a permanent reserve. Their victory was, however, shortlived, as the Victorian government responded by passing the apartheid ‘Half-Caste Act’ of 1886, which forced younger mixed-race men and women off of the reserves and (nominally) into the white population, breaking up families and forcing Coranderrk into a process of slow decline, finally closing in 1924.

The event on Friday included a staged reading of extracts from the verbatim play Coranderrk: We Will Show the Country, written by Giordano Nanni (of Melbourne Uni) and Yorta Yorta/Kurnai playwright, Andrea James, and produced by La Mama Theatre. It was extraordinarly powerful. If anything the device of verbatim theatre, and the knowledge that you were hearing the testimony of witnesses in the words spoken 130 odd years ago added to the poigniancy, and reminded me powerfully of some of the ideas and effects explored in Edinburgh as part of the Beyond Text in Legal Education project (see my earlier post here; though verbatim theatre was not an approach we considered in that context, it can clearly be used, like techniques such as theatre of the oppressed, to foster engagement with, not just awareness of, enduring injustice). Moreover, having coincidentally spent part of last week exploring the Mabo case with my legal theory students, I was doubly confronted after Coranderrk with the historical and contemporary reality of structural injustices on which a one-time colonial state like Australia was and continues to be built. The script has been published as a book by the Aboriginal studies Press (Canberra, 2013). Get it if you can.      

Goodbye to Berlin

As I mentioned in my last blog, I’ve not long been back from a few days in Berlin, combining the Law & Society Association/Research Committee for Sociology of Law conference with a weekend away with the divine Ms B.

The conference itself was massive, held at the Humboldt University (pictured). Running over five days there were easily over 2000 delegates and (someone told me) nearly 40 parallel streams. I managed to attend about eight: a mixture of legal ethics, legal profession and social theory streams. One of the reasons I went was that there was a lot of systems theory happening, with a number of well-established names performing – Gunther Teubner, Michael King, Jean Clam, and my former colleague and continuing friend John Paterson to name but a few, and systems theory is relevant to my slowly progressing book project on Law, Complexity and Globalization. There was relatively little legal education, or at least not in a coordinated fashion. It was mostly odd papers scattered across streams, which made it more difficult to follow it as a theme. Unfortunately one legal education session that had been coordinated by my Brit colleagues Fiona Cownie and Tony Bradney clashed with my own paper (‘Socio-Legal Studies, Transdisciplinarity and the Challenge of Complexity’) which partly rehashed and partly developed ideas I’d previous published in Michael Freeman’s Current Legal Issues volume on Law and Sociology (Oxford UP, 2006).

Still, legal education wasn’t the primary purpose of my going this time, and it was an interesting event. One of the things that I found interesting was the very clear sense I got of the growing split between European and US approaches to socio-legal scholarship. This may not have been everyone’s experience of the conference of course; I did attend a number of sessions that focussed on quite distinctively European theories or themes, at which US attendance – and certainly participation – was significantly less, and that may have skewed my view. But I was certainly struck by the degree to which in a couple of theory sessions the Europeans (including the Brits) were operating in a very different theoretical space from the US Americans. A lot of the US law and society project still seems very much caught up with a strongly positivist social science or liberal political philosophy.