Qualifying Law Degree 2020

January 9, 2018

2014 brought the effective demise of the Joint Academic Stage Board (JASB) regulatory framework governing the university stage of legal training. Exactly a year ago today saw the end of the second and final consultation period of the Solicitors Regulatory Authority’s (SRA) proposal to replace with a single qualification exam (SQE) all current qualification requirements for those seeking to enter the Solicitors’ profession. In October 2017, the Bar Standards Board (BSB) published a draft of its “authorising framework” governing the education and training of Barristers.

 

If there is one lesson to be learned from the period over which these fairly momentous developments have taken place it is this: Law Schools need to demand much more in terms of leadership over the crucial question of whether Law School degree programmes should contain a common core of knowledge and generic skills, the content of which is contingent on each and every Law School accepting that it must surrender a degree of autonomy in terms of programme design, content and planning to external interests. Chief among these interests would be counted the demand for a particular type of legal training by those professions which dominate the legal services market.

 

There are a number of associations which represent legal academics employed across approximately 115 University Law Schools operating in the UK. Those with the largest membership and influence include the Committee of Heads of University Law Schools (CHULS), the Association of Law Teachers (ALT) and the Society of Legal Scholars (SLS). At least since the Legal Education and Training Review (LETR) was established, it has been known that there was a strong lobby for change to the subjects of which the so-called foundations of legal knowledge are currently comprised. LETR reported its findings and recommendations in 2013. Although it proposed little change to the university stage of legal training, many Law Schools have revised their programmes which the spirit of LETR in mind. Despite the laudable efforts of some schools at curriculum innovation, it was against a fairly unchanging picture of university legal education that the SRA set out its proposals to replace the foundations of legal knowledge with what it has designated as “functioning legal knowledge”. Its proposals are now in the stages of implementation for 2020.

 

It is in default of leadership from Law School associations and committees that various commentators have been able to claim that the SQE signals the end of the university qualifying law degree programme (QLD). Neither the SQE nor the BSB authorising framework when it emerges are capable without more of bringing about so undesired a result. If the knowledge and generic skills components of SQE (SQE1) and the academic stage of the draft authorising framework are incorporated into a university degree, then the degree in question is undoubtedly a qualifying degree. Whilst in theory a degree from any discipline could incorporate these elements, in reality (and with due acknowledgement to the welcome drive toward interdisciplinary studies) it is only Law Schools/Departments that possess portfolios of programmes which can accommodate SQE1 and the academic stage of the BSB draft authorising framework without undermining disciplinary integrity. Once the SRA accepted the feedback from its consultation process as to the necessity of degree level qualifications, the qualifying law degree programmes of existing providers of degree level studies again resumed centre stage in discussions around the academic component of legal training.

 

Talk of the demise of the QLD has suspended appreciation of the real challenge which the SRA and, to a lesser extent, BSB has posed. For the first time the question of whether Law Schools nationally and collectively are to be distinguished by their QLD status is one which the professions have left to the university sector to determine. A special relationship between university Law Schools and the two main branches of the legal profession was forged more than 50 years ago when the recommendations of the Report of the Committee on Legal Education, 1971 were implemented. How this relationship is to develop in the future is not a question which individual Law Schools should be left to decide with their university senior management teams. Nothing short of a collective statement from as many Law School associations and committees as possible as regards the core of legal knowledge and skills required to be taught by university Law Schools from 2020 will suffice. What will form the core of qualifying law degree programmes in 2020, and thus the basis of the proposed collective statement? Between the unstable old foundations around which the professions and university Law Schools are currently in uneasy alliance and the very elastic training requirements now proposed by the BSB (see paragraph 7 of the draft authorising framework), the SRA’s “functioning legal knowledge” courses will almost certainly form the basis on which Law Schools are propelled, willingly or otherwise, into a new age of qualifying law degrees.

 

What would stand in the way of an unequivocal statement from Law School associations and committees as to the alignment of Law Schools with the SRA in terms of the academic stage of legal training? This brings me to the content of the SRA proposals: specifically to the content of SQE1, which it is commonly accepted is the element of the SQE for which support from university level providers is needed.

 

It is inevitable, and perhaps it is also right, that newness is not permitted to enter the world without careful scrutiny. However, the scrutiny of the new is too often facilitated by a lack of continuous scrutiny over what is older and more familiar. Responses to the SRA consultation process should be read with these cautions in view. Let us proceed with the reminder that under the current QLD rules 180 credits out of the total 360 credits allocated to degree study must be comprised of subjects which the SRA and BSB determine to constitute the foundations of legal knowledge. The subjects in question must be taught across the entire degree. A persistent criticism of SQE 1 content is that it does not include courses “such as Family Law, Disability Rights, Immigration Law and other aspects of Social Welfare Law (e.g. University of Leeds Briefing Paper & Socio-Legal Studies Blog). These objections appear compelling until one is reminded that the subjects listed are not contained in the current foundation subjects either, and yet are undoubtedly taught by Law Schools with a general orientation toward social welfare law. A related criticism is that SQE 1 will crowd the curriculum, such that many of the courses currently taught as options will be squeezed out, with a consequent negative effect on the development of a School’s distinctive intellectual orientation and social mission. As I understand the case, the SRA has yet to specify the quantity of classroom and private study to be devoted to SQE1 subjects, but SRA would have to specify that more than half the study time allocated to the entire degree must be devoted to SQE 1 if university Law Schools are to find their curricula more squeezed than they are under the current foundations of legal knowledge qualifying framework. Those critics who do not fear that SQE1 will take up too much of the curriculum point to SQE1’s seeming lack of substance. If this last criticism has force, then we are entering a dispensation in which the core is shrinking-leaving surely more scope for a Law School to carve its distinctive brand around an enlarging periphery?

 

In terms of subjects taught for SQE1, there is a decided focus on application of principles. The compulsory subjects Commercial and Corporate Law and Practice and Principles of Professional Conduct point to a new kind of foundation. Aside from these elements, it is difficult to see why the content of SQE1 would prove troubling to university law schools who are already bound to teach constitutional and administrative law, English legal systems, contract, tort, criminal law, property law and trusts; and who have long embraced the teaching of legal research and writing

 

The real innovation of the SRA is to replace Law School internal examination of the core with a single examination, assessed by a body which is independent of the individual Law School providers. This arrangement will replace the current “light touch” monitoring of standards which is reliant upon the external examiner requirement and the latent threat to withdraw a university from the QLD framework. One assumes that a Law School will quickly come under the scrutiny of the SRA if disproportionate numbers of students who take SQE1, having been taught to the exam by the Law School in question, fail or under-perform. Many have observed that the single examination is a return by the SRA to an earlier period of legal training. But we need not look to the past for a model of how quality standards of public and private institutions are kept in check partly through the assessment process. The Undergraduate Laws Consortium of the University of London International Programmes has long adopted a model of educational partnership in which mainly private institutions across the globe offer teaching and learning support to a set of examinations which are devised and assessed centrally.

 

This commentary concludes with the observation that Law Schools are now so plentiful in number and, comparatively speaking, resource rich that they should not have been so led by the nose over the changes to the foundations of legal knowledge as they appear to have been. Whether or not Law School associations and committees can or should take on an equivalent role to bodies like the SRA and BSB in determining the direction of university legal education is one I would like to see debated more widely. Within that debate I would hope that the Critical Legal Studies Conference Executive will once again give thought to whether it should form itself into an association. Given the importance of critical legal studies to law School pedagogy, the current turbulence to the QLD framework may be just the steer it needs.

 

 

References

 

Bar Standards Board, Authorisation Framework for the Approval of Education and Training Organisations (Draft), 3 October 2017

Guth, Jessica, The SQE, Law Degrees and Socio-Legal Studies, Socio-Legal Studies Blog

Maslen, Kirsten, Legal Education: How will the SQE Affect the Market?, Thompson Reuters Legal Solutions UK & Ireland Blog, 25 April 2017

Report of the Committee on Legal Education, (1971). Cmmd. 4595 {Ormrod Report} London: HMSO

Solicitors Regulation Authority: A New Route to Qualifications: New Regulations, Consultation Responses, November 2017

Solicitors Regulation Authority Press Release 25 April 2017 SRA Announces New Solicitors’ Assessment to Guarantee High Standards.

University of Leeds, Reforms to the Qualification Route to the Solicitors’ Profession: Briefing Note

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