Should all candidates take the same tests on the SQE?

Specialisation has long been a theme and a reality in the legal profession.  Very few true general practitioners continue to exist and in England & Wales at least, the qualification process has come to reflect this.

So whilst a common core of knowledge is set out in the Joint Statement, and the LPC Outcomes  establish certain requirements for that course, a considerable proportion of the LPC has been available for the exploration of specialist electives.  The most obvious example of this is in the City LPC where City firms are able to bespoke the course to the needs of the firm, however it also means that students can choose electives such as immigration or family depending on the provider.

A seemingly similar arrangement will continue post-SQE (with the Statements of Solicitor Competence and Legal Knowledge), where it is currently proposed that candidates will be able to choose options for assessment on SQE2.

But options do not sit comfortably with centralised assessment as it impacts on the validity and reliability of the test and as such will have consequences for the SRA’s stated aims for the SQE which is for all solicitors to meet “consistent high standards” and move away from the myriad options of the LPC.

So what is going on here?  It seems to be that the SRA, whilst embarking on a massive overhaul of much of the qualification framework, is going with a half-way house solution when it comes to SQE2.

Both assessment theory (maximise the number of candidates attempting the same questions), and regulatory theory (the client must be assured that all solicitors have met consistent standards) would suggest that the SRA would be better of making SQE2 the same for everyone.

There is a precedent for this in the QLTS where all candidates take the same skills tests in property and probate, civil and criminal litigation and business law.  It was not by accident that the QLTS OSCE had thereby the further advantage of assessing the practical application of the reserved activities which all solicitors are entitled to practise on qualification.  Analysis of the OSCE results since 2010 provides clear evidence that this approach is effective.

This looks to me like an act of appeasement – albeit one which the SRA seems uncomfortable with given the questions asked of potential assessment bodies in the tender documentation about whether this approach is viable.  Wouldn’t it be better in terms of transparency and assessment rigour, to test everyone on the same things (including the reserved activities) and leave specialisation to training and post-qualification accreditation?

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