SRA reports SQE is “robust, fair, valid assessment” while acknowledging the "troubling” disparity in pass rates

updated on 17 March 2023

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Following its first full year in practice, the latest reports show that the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE) is a fair and reliable assessment, despite the disparity in pass rates between candidates from different ethnic backgrounds.  

The two reports include an annual review from the SQE assessment provider, Kaplan, and by the SQE's Independent Reviewer, Geoff Coombe. The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has concluded from both reports that the overall implementation of the new assessment has “gone well”.

However, as LawCareers.Net reported in October 2022, SRA data on SQE pass rates showed alarming discrepancies between white and Black candidates.

The SRA’s statistical report for July’s SQE1 assessment showed that 63% of the 778 white candidates who took the exam passed both stages of the SQE1, while only 23% of the 122 Black candidates passed. Meanwhile, 54% of the 569 Asian/Asian British candidates who took SQE1 in July passed.

The SRA recognises that while there’s “no systemic bias in the SQE itself” the legal sector still has a long way to go to increase equity in examinations and the results themselves are “still troubling”.

In his independent reports, Coombe stated a number of possible reasons for the discrepancy in results, stating: “The potential for early cohorts to have an atypical demographic make-up should also be recognised.” He added that he’s “speculated that differences in access to prior support and learning resources may also help to explain why differences in outcome are observed”.

Coombe’s independent review found no evidence of bias in any process connected with the SQE itself. In an attempt to better understand the reason for this disparity, the SRA has commissioned research from the University of Exeter to better understand why white candidates perform better than other groups. The results of this new report are expected to be published in November.

Some of the other key themes outlined by the reports included that, generally, candidates:

  • with higher degree classifications perform significantly better in the assessments – 71% of candidates with a first-class degree passed SQE1 compared to 32% of those with a 2.2. 
  • who were apprentices performed well – with pass rates 26% higher than the overall rate.
  • who’d completed some qualifying work experience also performed better, with 10% more passing compared to those who hadn’t.

Paul Philip, SRA chief executive, commented: “It's been a positive start. One of the main reasons we introduced the SQE was to bolster confidence that qualifying solicitors were meeting the same, high standard. It's good to see all the analyses show it is a robust, fair, valid assessment. Generally, the candidate experience has been good, but we are committed to improving it further.”

In the SRA’s review of the reports they also announced that SQE fees are set to increase in September 2023. This means fees will increase by around 11% in 2023/24. The fees for:

  • SQE1 will increase from £1,622 (2022/23) to £1,798 (2023/24); and
  • SQE2 will increase from £2,493 (2022/23) to £2,766 (2023/24).