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Solicitors: Professional Qualifications

Volume 779: debated on Monday 6 March 2017

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of recent proposals by the Solicitors Regulation Authority to reform the qualifications for admission to the solicitors’ profession.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I declare my interest as chair of the University of Leeds School of Law advisory board.

My Lords, as the legal profession in England and Wales and the bodies that regulate it are independent from government, we have not made any assessment of the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s recent proposals. As set out in the Legal Services Act 2007, it will be for the Legal Services Board to determine whether to approve changes to the qualification arrangements for solicitors, should the Solicitors Regulation Authority seek to proceed with its proposals.

My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord for his reply. However, is he not aware of the widespread concern that the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s proposals will mean that universities have to teach to the solicitors qualifying examination if they are to remain competitive, potentially constraining the breadth of the curriculum that can be taught as part of an academic law degree and stifling innovation in curriculum development?

My Lords, we do not believe that if these proposals were taken forward it would have such a stultifying effect upon the university law schools to which the noble Lord refers. I observe that there are currently 110 qualifying law degree providers, 40 providers of the graduate diploma in law and 26 providers of the legal practice course, and no consistency of examination at the point of qualification.

My Lords, given the massive cuts in legal aid, the rising costs of tribunal and court proceedings, and the difficulties resulting from the consequential growth in the number of unrepresented litigants, should not any qualification programme include a requirement to provide pro bono advice and representation?

My Lords, as I have already indicated, the question of what qualification requirements there should be is a matter for the Solicitors Regulation Authority and for the Legal Services Board. However, of course they are concerned to pursue their statutory obligations, which include a requirement to have regard to the demands upon the profession.

My Lords, we are seeing something of a turf war between the SRA and the Law Society. One can of course see the case for separation, with the SRA as regulator and the Law Society governing the profession. There may even be a case for a single legal services regulator. But the position at the moment is that the SRA wants to control standards for entry into the profession and the Law Society’s concern is not to lower those standards. Do the Government have a view on how those issues can be resolved, given the public interest in maintaining standards of legal practice?

My Lords, the Solicitors Regulation Authority has no desire to see any diminution in standards. Its concern is to increase access to the profession in order that we have a more effective and diverse profession. As regards the test of what would be appropriate for the regulation of access to the profession, the Legal Services Board will make a determination in light of the SRA’s submission.

Has the Minister noticed the distinct lack of guidance for the Legal Services Board? Barristers are taking this opportunity to upgrade the qualifications while solicitors are going in the other direction. Given that there are very few jobs for new solicitors, this ought to be the moment to upgrade their qualifications as well. Does he agree that it is high time for a review of the Legal Services Board, which seems to have failed to produce over the past 10 years any of the reforms and improvements that were promised at the outset?

My Lords, we do not consider that there is a need for a further review at this time. As the noble Baroness will be aware, the Legal Education and Training Review was undertaken jointly by the Solicitors Regulation Authority, the Bar Standards Board and the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives, which resulted in a report that was published in June 2013. The review did find weaknesses in the current system of legal education, and the SRA is seeking to address them in its submissions to the Legal Services Board.

My Lords, I draw attention to my interests as set out in the register. Perhaps I could tempt the Minister to reflect on the question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Low, about the narrowing of the curriculum. I accept entirely that the SRA and the Legal Services Board are independent, but would it not be of national concern if family law, disability rights and social welfare law were to be squeezed out in the narrowing of that curriculum?

My Lords, I understand the point made by the noble Lord and I agree that we should not see a narrowing of the curriculum, but, with respect, where people undertake to study at a university, whether it be for a law degree or another subject, they do not do so for the sole purpose of passing a professional examination; they study in order to broaden their understanding in general and to extend their education and their understanding of the law. For example, the study of jurisprudence may not be regarded as absolutely essential to passing examinations set by the Solicitors Regulation Authority, but nevertheless it is appropriate for anyone expecting to pursue a career in law.