Undertaken on behalf of the Bar Standards Board (BSB), ILEX Professional Standards (IPS) and the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), the Legal Education and Training Review (LETR) was billed as the first sector-wide review of legal services since the Ormrod Report of 1971. The final 350-page report of the independent research team, entitled Setting Standards: The future of legal services education and training regulation in England and Wales, was published in June, following a six-month delay in publication.
It was commissioned back in June 2011 as the first stage in ‘future-proofing’ an education and training system, in line with the regulatory objectives of the Legal Services Act 2007 and the changing legal market. The report’s team, led by Professor Julian Webb of the University of Warwick, did not propose the fundamental reforms some had predicted, but a range of “incremental but collectively significant reforms”, designed as “part of a socially robust, long-term, approach to a limited number of deeply embedded problems”. It holds back , “at this stage”, from recommending a move to “greater activity-based authorisation”, for reasons of “potential cost and complexity, particularly within the present system of multiple regulators”.
The centrality of professionalism and ethics to training and practice was one of the clearest conclusions to be drawn from the review; together with the need for a root and branch rethink of continuing professional development (CPD); and more flexible, non-graduate routes to qualification as a lever to increase diversity.
On the question of whether fused common professional training offered any benefits, the answer was “equivocal at best”. The authors called for a moratorium on the development of aptitude-based admission to the Bar until further research becomes available, and it was too soon to say whether Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) had “effectively escaped from any limitations of its past”. The review noted that the specialist advocacy training on the BPTC and through the Inns of Court were generally well regarded.
Nor was there a “straightforward” solution to the problems of cost, debt and numbers entering training and the review expressed “significant doubt as to whether these are properly matters for regulation”. It noted little shortfall between the number of training opportunities and actual jobs in the market. The problem was “the upward supply-side pressure generated by the numbers graduating”. The situation could be ameliorated, it said, by sharing more information on the risks of entering professional training, awareness of alternative careers and more flexible pathways, and enhancing competition between providers.
How the recommendations are interpreted, however, are likely to be of greater import than the report itself. Each of the frontline regulators will now decide what action they will take in response to the recommendations (see box, left). Meanwhile, the BSB’s own two-year review of the CPD system is expected to culminate this summer (see Counsel February 2013 p13). A revised scheme has been approved by the Education Committee and was due to go before the Board in July. If approved, it will be implemented over the next two years.
LETR recommendations at a glance (see the full report at http://letr.org.uk)
- legal ethics, values and professionalism; management and communication; and equality and diversity to be at the heart of education and training
- “liberalised”, “output-led” CPD system, requiring practitioners more actively to plan and demonstrate value, without minimum hours
- greater regulatory collaboration, eg forming a joint Legal Education Council, setting common baseline standards and assessment, more data sharing on job market realities
- establish professional standards for internships and work experience
- increase opportunities for career progression and mobility within paralegal work, and a single voluntary system of certification/licensing
- develop non-graduate pathways eg support and monitor higher apprenticeships, with clearer accreditation of prior learning and transfer
- remove requirements in training regulations that unduly restrict the development of innovative and flexible pathways to qualification, eg classroom- and workplace-learnin
Reactions from the regulators
The language from the regulators was careful but largely positive. Director of the BSB, Dr Vanessa Davies, was pleased that the review “recognises that the current system provides a good standard of education and training upon which to build”, whilst identifying “plenty of challenges” for the future. She endorsed the recognition that professional ethics should be at “the core of legal education” and noted “some invaluable insights” on “which to base our decision-making” in the public interest. Maura McGowan QC, Chairman of the Bar, said that entrance to the profession was “one which we take exceptionally seriously” but that “we also recognise the shrinking number of places available, particularly at the publicly funded Bar, and the rising cost of entering the profession”. She noted that a number of the proposals relating to training for the Bar appeared to be “sensible and rational” and pointed out that much of this work is already under way.
Undertaking a radical review of the skills and knowledge required to merit qualification as a solicitor would be a key priority, said Charles Plant, Chair of the SRA Board, who committed to a policy statement later in the year, “properly co-ordinated with that of the other regulators”.
IPS Chair Alan Kershaw was “delighted that the report clearly highlights the many benefits of the CILEx routes to qualification as a lawyer”. His “key ambition” for the report, he said, had been to promote diversity, and he was particularly encouraged by the “endorsement of the direction IPS has taken in recent years” and “further validation of the case for CILEx members to obtain rights of independent practice.”
Elisabeth Davies, Legal Services Consumer Panel Chair, acknowledged the report was an “important staging post” but said it was a missed opportunity for consumers: “Introducing periodic reaccreditation in high risk areas of law is the single biggest thing the review could have done to bolster consumer confidence in the quality of legal work, so we’re greatly disappointed this is missing from the proposals.”