Students with the potential to be incredible solicitors, barristers and judges are being blocked from entering the legal profession. That needs to change, writes Nick Thomas-Symonds MP
Open access to the legal profession for anyone with the ability, skill and competence to offer a quality service to the public should be a guiding principle for all who believe in the rule of law. Recent debate has centred on the proposed changes to the admissions process for those who seek to qualify as solicitors, and whether the existing system should be changed.
The Solicitors’ Regulation Authority has put the case for the Solicitors Qualifying Examination. The current position is said to be inconsistent, with different routes into the profession that do not assess competence in the same way; the lack of transparency in course results is cited (specifically, the variation in pass rates for the legal practice course and graduate diploma in law); the cost bars able people from applying; and there is the fact that most other jurisdictions insist on an independent assessment to enter the profession. The idea is that a clear, unified, universal examination testing legal knowledge and skills will provide confidence for the public at large, law firms, education providers and aspirant solicitors themselves. Such an idea is attractive in principle, but it is important that the SRA continues to move forward in a considered, consultative way and that the nature of the SQE proves durable and achieves its objectives. With implementation still a few years away, there is time for a strategic transition.
Such a change also brings into sharp focus two other fundamental issues: issues that must be tackled if the legal profession is to become more diverse in the years ahead. How do we overcome the perception that too many able applicants, men and women from a variety of different backgrounds, feel that the legal profession just is not for them? The Law Society, in their 2015 Diversity Charter Biennial Report, found that 27 per cent of solicitors had attended a UK independent/fee-paying school. Similarly, the Sutton Trust in their annual 2016 report, detailing the educational backgrounds of the UK professional elite, revealed that 74 per cent of high court and appeals court judges attended fee-paying schools. In 2004, this figure was 75 per cent. This reveals the staggering disparity of those who attend a fee paying school and those from a state school background especially considering that the proportion of fee paying schools in England is only 9.5 per cent.
Second, and it is the elephant in the room in all these discussions on reform of the regulation of the legal profession, we have to deal with the issue of the cuts to legal aid. It was the Labour government of my first biographical subject, Clement Attlee, that passed the Legal Aid and Advice Act 1949, and legal aid came to be regarded as the ‘fourth pillar’ of the welfare state. Yet, rather than having a justice system in which anyone can enforce their rights regardless of wealth, we now have a system that the lord chief justice, John Thomas, comments is ‘unaffordable to most.’ The Law Society conducted a survey which revealed that in the South West, the West Midlands and Wales counties there is one provider for legal aid for housing. In addition, in the past five years there has been a decrease of legal aid providers in relation to pieces of work that are completed. The government have continued to slash the legal aid budget: how can we expect the public to have wide confidence in the quality and accessibility of a profession that is simply out of their reach when they need legal advice?
So, while I welcome a debate on regulation and access, we must not lose sight of the fundamentals. For that we need a change of government: to one willing to increase the legal aid budget, allowing more people to access it and to encourage more people to enter law from more diverse backgrounds including state schools. There are so many students who have the potential to be incredible solicitors, barristers and judges. Barriers need to be broken down by determined ministers.
Nick Thomas-Symonds MP is member of parliament for Torfaen. He tweets @NickTorfaenMP
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.