The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has backed the principle behind the Costs Lawyer Standards Board’s (CLSB) proposal to introduce the Costs Lawyer Competence Assessment (CLCA), but warned that the small number of candidates could make it hard to achieve in practice.
The oversight regulator, the Legal Services Board, has until Friday to approve or decline the CLSB’s application for the new training regime or extend the time to make a decision by a further two months.
The board has also published the SRA’s comments, which said the CLCA was in line with its own educational reforms. This will see the introduction, from autumn 2021, of a new two-part licensing examination for solicitors of England and Wales – the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE). The regulator will cease to specify particular underpinning qualifications or routes to admission, although would-be solicitors will need two years of work experience to qualify.
Agreeing with the CLSB’s proposal, the SRA said: “The focus of a regulator’s attention should be on assuring that those they admit are competent. Therefore, it needs to identify the competences needed for safe practice and satisfy itself that those it admits can demonstrate those competences.
“It needs to be able to do so on an accurate, consistent, fair, transparent and cost-effective basis. It does not need to specify how candidates acquire these competences or how they should be taught. Its focus should be on assessing the outcomes of education and training, not specifying inputs.
“The professional assessment it requires for admission to the profession needs to be the minimum amount of assessment needed to ensure candidates are safe to practise. It should cover core competences only and be set at the minimum standard (which, of course, does not necessarily imply a low standard). Otherwise, it creates unjustifiable barriers to admission and restricts consumers’ access to legal services.”
But it raised two practical issues for the CLSB to consider. It said that, if the numbers of students were very small, “this may affect the statistical reliability of the standard-setting processes needed to provide confidence in the accuracy and consistency of the proposed assessment”.
Second, developing and delivering a centralised assessment, and writing good-quality assessment materials, “is expensive”, the SRA said. “The numbers of candidates, and the fee they can reasonably be charged, may therefore affect the commercial viability of the proposed contract with the assessment provider.”
It suggested that this could be addressed by awarding a long-term contract, giving the assessment provider time to recover the development costs, but such a hypothesis needed to be tested against a range of fee levels.
The SRA also questioned whether the CLCA needed to include knowledge of contract and tort law in the assessment. “We agree with the principle of targeting the assessment around the three areas of authorised legal activity for Costs Lawyers under the Legal Services Act 2007. As stated, a professional assessment should be the minimum necessary for safe practice. Each element of it needs an objective justification. We would suggest the board might wish to review the standard to ensure it is as tightly drawn as possible.”