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The reforming regulator: what’s the SRA been up to recently?

updated on 17 January 2017

The SRA is on a mission to reduce bureaucracy and streamline its processes, including in relation to education and training. As such, you need to know what this regulator has changed and what it has got planned. Read on for an explanation on the regulatory amends that could affect your path to qualified solicitor.

The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has been in the grip of a significant shift in the way it does things over the last couple of years, reformulating the role it plays and where it positions itself within a changing profession. Why should you be interested? Well, this is the organisation that regulates the profession you hope to join and makes decisions about the way you will be educated and trained in your pursuit of that aim.

In fact the SRA has spent the last year consulting on its proposal to introduce a Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE), under which all those wishing to qualify as a solicitor would have to sit the same professional exam. The assessment would be based on the competences required to do the job well and would “ensure consistent high standards of entry into the profession, providing confidence for the public and employers”. More on this below, but the announcement has not been without controversy – and a final decision on whether to implement the SQE could soon be revealed.

When it came into being in 2006, the SRA’s stated role was to regulate solicitors in the public interest, protecting consumers by setting and enforcing standards. It is responsible for:

  • setting qualification standards;
  • approving and monitoring training organisations;
  • setting and monitoring compliance with rules of professional conduct;
  • providing authoritative guidance; and
  • administering the roll of solicitors.

The shift in the SRA’s approach to its role as defined above was perhaps most noticeable when the “Red Tape Initiative” was announced in 2013, designed to “remove, curtail or simplify regulations and processes which are not demonstrably in the public interest, impeding both those we regulate and our ability to focus on the issues that really matter”. This reforming spirit of simplification has gone on to gather pace in the last couple of years, characterised by the regulator’s desire to make its own requirements “more proportionate and targeted, and so reduce the cost and burden of regulation”. For example, in 2015 the SRA announced a new consultation on a raft of reforms formulated to “reduce bureaucracy”, as SRA chief executive Paul Philip put it. They included proposed changes to alternative business structure (ABS) authorisation, the recording and reporting of diversity data, and the apprenticeship route.

With specific focus on the reforms that the regulator has brought about in relation to its education and training programme, in November 2014 Julie Brannan, SRA director of education and training, said that “flexible pathways and rigorous standards” lay at the heart of things. This article will concentrate on the changes that the SRA has made to the way education and training of solicitors is organised.

Training for Tomorrow

The SRA launched its ongoing Training for Tomorrow (T4T) programme in 2013. It was set up with the joint aims of:

  • moving from an overly prescriptive system of regulation to one which allowed it to set out the “day-one skills, knowledge and attributes that a new solicitor must possess and permit much greater flexibility as to how those competencies are acquired”;
  • stepping away from the “discredited tick-box” system of continuing professional development (CPD); and
  • stripping away several of the technical regulations that required it to be involved in the detail of the education and training process.

T4T was motivated in great measure by the Legal Education and Training Review (LETR), commissioned in 2011 by the SRA, the Bar Standards Board and CILEx Regulation (formerly ILEX Professional Standards), and the first fundamental review of education and training requirements in England and Wales for decades. The final report was published in June 2013, stating that while the current system is not “fundamentally broken”, there is room for improvement - particularly in regard to quality, accessibility and flexibility.

The report set out 26 key recommendations, including that standards be established for the knowledge, skills and attributes of those entering the profession; regulators consider more focus on ethics and professionalism; and training policies reflect the fact that many more people will enter the profession through apprenticeships, as paralegals and on work experience placements. Much of what the SRA has gone on to do in this sphere in the nearly two years since the report’s publication has been informed by its recommendations.

New competence statement

On 11 March 2015 the SRA board approved a competence statement, which “defines the standards expected of solicitors at the point of qualification and the steps they need to take to maintain these standards”. It is made up of three parts, namely a statement of competence, a threshold standard and a statement of legal knowledge. The statement will need to be supported by an assessment framework, which the SRA is developing in consultation with the profession.

Brannan said: “The competence statement sets the standard for practice as a solicitor. It ties into continuing competence for practising solicitors, as well as admission to the profession. [It] is generic, so solicitors will need to apply it to their particular role and practice area. But it will help them think through whether their work is good enough and to identify where they need to do some training or other development work.” Which leads neatly on to…

Changes to CPD

Traditionally, CPD requirements were such that a solicitor had to complete 16 hours of training at events and seminars each year. The new approach, characterised by the SRA as “continuing competence” (as above), requires solicitors to "regularly reflect" on their practice and implement a development programme accordingly. After a period in which solicitors were able to opt into the new continuing competence framework, the system is now compulsory as of 1 November 2016.

Brannan said: “Our new approach enables us to uphold standards, while also permitting solicitors and firms to determine training and development according to their specific needs and learning styles. It is a much more rigorous approach than at present as solicitors will need to think hard about what they need to do on a regular basis to ensure they remain competent to practise.”

Introduction of equivalent means

In 2014 the SRA updated its Training Regulations, replacing a 2011 version. Crucially, the new regulations introduced the idea that the necessary knowledge and skills outcomes (and the standard at which they must be acquired) to become a solicitor may have been achieved by an individual through other assessed learning and work-based learning, known as “equivalent means”. Having proved this to be the case, the SRA may grant an exemption from its qualification and training requirements.

Arguably the most significant outcome of this is that is now possible to qualify as a solicitor without having done a training contract. Instead, the individual is required to prove that he or she has the necessary skills and training to become a solicitor by evidencing his or her achievements while working in other, non-solicitor legal roles – most obviously as a paralegal.

The first person to qualify in this way joined the roll of solicitors in April 2015. Robert Houchill of Bates Wells Braithwaite had worked as a senior paralegal at the firm for four years. He had completed the LPC but did not secure a training contract. However, he satisfied the SRA that he had obtained the same skills and standards during his employment that he would have done as a trainee. Since then, over 100 paralegals have qualified as solicitors through the equivalent means pathway.

Other changes contained within the 2014 regulations include the following:

  • A certificate of academic standing will no longer be issued by the SRA for those from overseas wishing to study the GDL. Rather, individuals must go direct to the GDL provider for a decision on their suitability.
  • Applications for a partial exemption from the GDL should now be made direct to the GDL provider. However, applications for a total exemption from the GDL must still be made to the SRA.
  • The SRA will no longer issue a Certificate of Completion of the Academic Stage for those about to start the LPC. Again, it will be for the LPC provider to determine that each individual has satisfied the necessary academic requirements before starting the course.
  • Student enrolment with the SRA prior to starting the LPC – and the associated £80 fee – is no longer necessary.
  • The need to disclose character and suitability issues prior to starting a training contract remains in place, and individuals are advised to contact the SRA at least six months in advance of starting a training contract to avoid delay in being assessed.

Period of recognised training

Also contained in the 2014 Training Regulations, the SRA replaced references to “specified training contract” with “a period of recognised training”. In practice, this means that any training that commenced after 1 July 2014 need no longer be carried out under the former terms of a SRA training contract. It also means that the SRA no longer requires firms to register their training contracts with it. Rather, firms must tell the SRA that a period of recognised training will commence in relation to a specific trainee. In addition, the SRA no longer specifies different modes of training, nor does it need to be applied to if the firm wants to terminate training; rather, this is to be determined between the firm and the trainee.

Other changes in terms of the way that the SRA relates to firms – or “training providers” – include the following:

  • The training principal can be either a solicitor of barrister. Previously, he or she had to have been a solicitor and had four consecutive practice certificates.
  • Trainees must be paid at least the national minimum hourly wage. In previous years, the SRA had set a minimum salary for trainees, but this was abolished in 2014, amid much controversy; the Junior Lawyers Division (JLD) continues to fight for a minimum salary to be reinstated.
  • There is no longer a requirement to provide a prescribed mix of contentious and non-contentious experience, provided that the trainee achieves the necessary skills and knowledge gained in work of this type.

Withdrawal from the code of conduct

In common with some of the reforms above, the SRA has been implementing changes to training as part of its overarching desire to strip away those regulations that it feels no longer serve a purpose. One such change was its decision to withdraw from the voluntary code to good practice in trainee recruitment as of March 2015. The code, broadly speaking, sets out good practice for the recruitment of trainees, including determining deadlines for when applications can be received, when offers can be made and when they must be accepted by.

The SRA cited as its reason for withdrawal that as a regulator, its role is not “to be involved in deciding the dates and processes by which individual employers and employees make recruitment choice”. However, the announcement was received with disappointment in many quarters, including from the two other principle signatories to the code, the JLD and the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services. In a joint statement they expressed their intention to secure other signatories to ensure the code’s survival. The Lawyer reported that reaction from many partners and graduate recruiters was concern that that the SRA’s withdrawal will encourage unscrupulous firms to exploit candidates and damage diversity in the profession. 

Crispin Passmore, SRA executive director for policy, said: "It is beyond our regulatory remit to uphold the code, as it is essentially a commitment to good recruitment practice. Our withdrawal does not reflect any view of the code’s benefits for firms or potential trainees.”

Proposed SQE

The SQE, as the SRA explains it, would "ensure consistent high standards of entry into the profession, providing confidence for both employers and the public. Opening up new pathways into the profession - such as apprenticeships - will help to foster greater diversity in the profession and a single exam will make sure all candidates meet the same high standards regardless of the route they take".

While the principle is sound – ie, ensuring consistent standards, widening routes in and strengthening public confidence – the actual formulation of the proposal has its critics. The Law Society has said that there is a chance that the proposed exam could “prevent some of the best talent from entering the legal profession” and “jeopardise the international standing of the solicitor qualification and, over time, affect the quality of legal advice which is valued by clients”. Law Society President Jonathan Smithers said: “Our view is that the removal of approved routes to qualification will cause uncertainty for those wishing to enter the profession and will most negatively affect those who have least access to good sources of information and advice.”

There were a series of events in February 2016 to inform attendees of what is planned and to seek views. There was also a formal consultation on the proposal, which has just recently closed. Stay tuned to the legal press, as the SRA is expected to announce its final decision as to whether to implement the SQE, as well as reveal more about what the SQE would entail, in the coming weeks and months.

Finally, when asked to comment on the one thing that the SRA would like would-be lawyers to know about its role as regulator, this was the response: “We are focused on the standards that you obtain before you can enter the profession, not on the way you obtain them. We have challenged providers and firms to explore new pathways into the profession, as long as their trainees achieve the standards we expect of solicitors delivering legal services in England and Wales. That is the priority for us as the regulator, not monitoring the processes by which new solicitors are developed.” Bearing in mind all the reforms above, and no doubt more to come, it seems important to stay on top of what the SRA has planned for the future.

For more on the SRA, what it does and how it may be involved with your career progression, please visit www.sra.org.uk/students and www.sra.org.uk/trainees. If you need to talk to someone, call the SRA’s contact centre on 0370 606 2555 or email info.services@sra.org.uk.