YLAL September meeting minutes

YLAL meeting minutes 9 September 2015

Attendees: Oliver Carter; Rachel Francis; Deena Blacking; Tara Mulcair; Franck Magennis; Grace Loncraine; Verity Quaite; Charlotte Arnold; Catherine Shannon; Jenny Mansell; Kate Smith; Laura Manson; Susanne Seaton; Kate Whiting; Julie Ball; Gerard Pitt; Alp Gokturk; Connor Johnston; Tina Pelttari; Philip Armitage; Caterina Franchi; Nathan Adams; Gimhani Eriyagolla; Heather Thomas; Laura Janes.

1. Julie Brannan, Director of Education and Training at the Solicitors’ Regulation Authority (SRA)

This month we invited Julie Brannan, Director of Education and Training at the SRA, to speak at our meeting. In April the SRA published a competency statement and they are currently rethinking the route(s) to qualification and the training of solicitors. In Autumn the SRA will publish the first of several consultations on this issue. The SRA wanted to meet with YLAL in order to get views from our members. Ms Brannan explained:

Background to this initiative

·      This review of the solicitors’ routes to qualification was prompted by the Legal Education and Training Review (LETR), which was a whole review of education and training across the legal services sector. The core question for the LETR was, given all of the changes, is the way that we train lawyers correct? It was felt that too long was spent by regulators on regulating the process, and not enough on the outcome and ensuring that those persons were of the right standard. Diversity was also an issue. The specificity of process prevented diversity, particularly given that a lot of the rigid pathways have costs associated with them, and then there are also bottlenecks in terms of who the firms or chambers choose to give their training contracts/pupillages to.

·      Julie arrived at SRA in Autumn 2013 and launched the ‘Training for Tomorrow’ programme for the SRA. The first thing they decided to do was review the current training and remove unnecessary bureaucracy. In April 2015 the competency statement was published as a standard of all the things that a competent solicitor needs to be able to do and therefore sets out what students need to do/learn.  The idea of the statement is to focus on the outcomes rather than the process.

·      The SRA has decided to look at all of the various mechanisms for qualification. In the past, the Law Society exam was a memory test. The great benefit of the LPC was the introduction of more skills testing. However, everyone still had to get to law via the LPC. Now there are lots more pathways – Qualified Lawyers Transfer Scheme (QLTS) for overseas lawyers; equivalent means (currently there is a very small number who have qualified through this method - something like 12 to 18 - but there are about 50 further applications in the pipeline.); apprenticeships (although this has only just approved); hybrid LPC courses e.g. there is a University of Law apprenticeship which merges the training contract and the LPC.

·      The SRA considers that there is now a problem for it as a regulator - it cannot compare the various routes and determine whether or not people have reached the same standard. It queries whether these methods fit for purpose and has concerns for the consumer of legal services, as well as the credibility of the qualification. Unless the SRA can show that these routes are equivalent and as good as the traditional route, these alternatives are not going to have market credibility.

The proposal

·      The SRA wants views on its proposal for a common professional assessment for all persons wishing to practice as a solicitor. This new form of assessment will need to test all the competencies as set out in the statement, and not just replicate the Law Society memory test.

·      The suggested model could include:

o   A series of MCQs that test the range of knowledge currently tested in the core of a law degree and the LPC

o   Oral skills tests e.g. how you interview a client

o   Written skills tests

·      These would be tested at the standard expected at the end of the training contract.

·      The SRA considers that it has some experience in running these sorts of tests through the QLTS and this does seem to show that this sort of testing works. Therefore these new proposals are not entirely new.

 

Questions and answers

Would this replace all the existing qualification requirements?

JB: Yes, this would be a centralised assessment process and there would be no requirement to do the LPC.

What about the risk that those who can afford to still qualify using the most costly but best tutored route and therefore gain an advantage e.g. by still doing all the tertiary courses that are available?

JB: Where we are at the moment is that we have all these variety of ways of qualifying (as explained earlier) – the question for the SRA is, can we, given that there are these different pathways, can we use a centralised assessment? It is possible that you may not even have to do a law degree. We could consider that you don’t even have to be a graduate; for example, consider apprenticeships.

What about the risk of failing exams for the firm?

JB: Currently law firms like controlling who qualifies. There are around 5000 firms around country but it is not clear how they decide which of their trainees pass. It is unlikely that there is a standard being uniformly applied. This would create a standard.

Does the SRA have a policy on e.g. scholarships or tuition fees? How is social mobility being addressed in these proposals?

JB: We are a regulator and we are there to regulate the solicitors’ profession. We are limited in our powers and we do not set the funding for higher education. What we have to do is look at what powers we do have and where we can make a difference. We think that we can bring change by the fact that we control who qualifies as a solicitor. For example, allowing apprenticeships contributes to social mobility. But ultimately our job is to say what the minimum requirements are for you to offer safe legal services.

Although you say that anyone can do the test, specialised exams ask for specialised knowledge, which inevitably means that there is going to be a market for education providers to sell tips and tricks. People who aren’t taught to the test on such courses may be at a disadvantage. How are you going to ensure that people who don’t go through a formal route or get on these courses have the support needed to ensure that they are on a level playing field?

JB:  We are proposing to separate the assessment from the teaching. We would appoint an assessment organisation. We would need them to be clear as to how the assessment will be done.

Would the new centralised assessment be targeted towards different types of law? My experience of the LPC was that it was much more geared towards commercial whereas my practical experience and my training contract is not commercial at all (I am a legal aid trainee lawyer).

JB: The focus will be on core knowledge. In terms of skills assessment, you raise an interesting point. One oddity about regulation currently is that you have the title to practice in the ‘reserved’ areas of practice i.e. civil litigation, criminal litigation, probate and property. For areas such as employment, currently you don’t need to be a solicitor. The next oddity is that, although the qualification gives you that right, many people never practise in the reserve areas. It seems that the system is not joined up. One of the challenges we face is working out how to address this. We know that you cannot assess skills in a vacuum, so the question is, where do we set the context for the tests? Do we set them in the reserved activities, e.g probate; or in the context of where you are working in the office, but possibly in areas of law that are not within the ‘reserved’ areas?

You say ‘There’s only so much we [the SRA] can do as a regulator’, but one of the biggest barriers is the removal of the minimum salary - surely that is within your purview?

JB: The removal of the minimum salary is due for review two years after it was brought in, so it is due for that review next year. That is not part of this proposal. This proposal is in part about access.  But we also consider that we face a difficult balance there in terms of balancing the needs of the consumer with law students.

Is the SRA suggesting that trainee solicitor study and do their job at the same time?

JB: What we envisage is that you are learning on the job.

What is the SRA thinking about who bears the cost? Will it be the training provider? Will students be given study leave from work?

JB: The assessment has an inevitable cost. The closest comparator is QLTS. Those multiple choice tests cost £525.  Of course, if there were more people taking it then there could be economies of scale. The test could be modularised and the costs could be spread over time. The real cost comes with the skills test. The oral skills test will rely on one-to-one skills tests and there will be inevitable costs associated with that. I expect that, in some instances, firms will pay, others won’t.

But there are savings if people are no longer required to do the LPC.

Why do you not trust firms in deciding who qualifies? Surely it is in a firm’s interest, not least for their reputation, to ensure that a trainee meets the required standards?

JB: The incentive isn’t as great as you think.  About one quarter of NQ solicitors move on.

It seems like the SRA have gone on a complete tangent. We asked for flexible routes and lower costs but now you are making more, not less, bureaucracy.

JB: The SRA wants flexible routes but unless you have a mechanism to demonstrate compatibility, there is a risk that those flexible routes are not credible.

Legal aid firms are unlikely to pay to assist. How do you expect legal aid trainees to cover their costs? 

JB: I am sympathetic to the points about flexibility and costs. This is designed to allow for greater flexibility. We have modelled a whole series of potential pathways and they are all cheaper. People may not want to take the LPC anyway. If we didn’t have the assessment, you would still have people taking other additional methods and you would still have the two-tiered system.

Surely this risks further paralegalisation and also an undermining of the CiLex process?

JB: CiLex currently have a centralised assessment. This model could be like Cilex. It could be integrated alongside your training.

You say the SRA has to balance a dichotomy between lawyers and consumers, but shouldn’t you be considering the needs of both in tandem? Legal services will miss out if bright young people won’t be able to afford expensive exams.

JB: I hear what you say about costs loud and clear. We are trying to take cost out so that people don’t have to pay £15,000 for an LPC. Every route is cheaper with the exception of the existing route (Law degree plus LPC) with this on top.

Closing remarks

There is also going to be a formal consultation process and the first will be about a 12 week consultation out in December.

 

2. CRIMINAL LEGAL AID update from Phil and Maia

Regret Motion in the House of Lords

-       On Monday 7 September the House of Lords debated the following motion to regret which was put forward by Lord Beecham:

This House regrets that the Government are introducing the Criminal Legal Aid (Remuneration etc.) (Amendment) Regulations 2015 without having undertaken a review of the impact and coherence of the cuts to litigators’ fees; agrees with the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee’s analysis that there is too little evidence to establish what effect the fee reduction would have; and regrets the Government’s lack of engagement with the profession and those affected by its reforms (SI 2015/1369).

-       You can read the debate in Hansard here: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld201516/ldhansrd/text/150907-0002.htm#15090727000100

-       The motion concerned the reduction of the fees payable for criminal legal aid work by 8.75%, which were effective for new cases begun after 1 July 2015. The Bar is presently exempt from this second, further cut, so presently it affects criminal legal aid solicitors only.

-       YLAL wrote a briefing which it sent to Peers in which we expressed our concerns, particularly in regard to the inevitable closure of legal aid firms.

-       The debate was quite short on Monday and the motion was eventually withdrawn (we understand this is standard practice with regret motions).

 

3. APPG on Legal Aid: Update from Verity Quaite

- The APPG on Legal Aid is co-run by YLAL and the Legal Aid Practitioners’  Group.

-  The next meeting will be on Wednesday 16th September 2015, between 9.00 and 10.00 am.

The meeting will discuss the challenges facing the advice sector and will be chaired by Sir Keir Starmer, QC, MP and we will hear from the following speakers:

  • Lord Low, chair of The Low Commission on the Future of Advice and Legal Support
  • Steve Johnson, Chief Executive of AdviceUK
  • Julie Bishop, Director of the Law Centres Network
  • John Edwards, Head of Service Delivery at Age UK
  • Laura Bunt, Head of Policy Research at Citizens Advice

- YLAL needs your help with this event. You can help in 3 main ways:

-       1. Email your MP

-       2. Email a Peer

-       3. Volunteers on the day

Please email ylalinfo@gmail.com if you would like to help.

 

4. JUSTICE ALLIANCE update from Camilla

- Things have been quiet over the summer but they will be picking up again in September and October.

- Please sign up to sub-group if you are interested in supporting this campaign.

 

5. YLAL OUTSIDE LONDON update from Rachel

- There are lots of YLAL groups outside London. If you are outside London, please get in touch. Look at our ‘Outside London’ webpage for more information: http://www.younglegalaidlawyers.org/localgroups

 

6. LAPG ANNUAL CONFERENCE update from Heather

This year’s annual conference is taking place in Birmingham on 9 October.

-       YLAL runs two workshops every year at the conference. One of these is usually a careers session and the other focuses on an interesting area of law.

-       The second session will have, amongst others, YLAL founder Laura Janes speaking and will look at the influence of human rights on legal aid practice. It will consider how – now that we have had the HRA in force since 2000 – it has influenced our legal practice, whether that be through changes to the common law, EU jurisprudence etc.  We will be considering  how ‘Human Rights’ have become pervasive throughout legal aid practice, and how this has transformed the legal framework particularly for legal aid practitioners.

-       There will be about 40 subsidised places for students.

-       We hope that the YLAL midlands group that will coordinate some of the organisation of these workshops, but it would be great to get help from people in London and elsewhere too. If you want to help, please get in touch with Heather and ask to join the subgroup. Email ylalinfo@gmail.com for more information.

 

7. AOB

Mentoring

-       Emily McFadden coordinates our mentoring scheme. We need more mentors! If you would like to help - you can be a trainee, pupil, paralegal, or anyone who wants to put themselves forward as a mentor - please let us know by emailing ylalmentoring@gmail.com

 

Peer Pals Spreadsheet

-       Natalie Wilkins coordinates YLAL’s contact with Peers through the ‘Peer Pals’. Now that we are in a new Parliament, we need to update the spreadsheet. If you would like to help with this research, please let us know via ylalinfo@gmail.com

 

Colombia Caravana  reception at Garden Court, 23 October 2015

-       The Colombia Caravana UK Lawyers group and Deighton Peirce Glynn are holding a fundraising reception at Garden Court Chambers on 23 October 2015. Please email colombian.caravana@googlemail.com for more information.