In this article, we will discuss eligibility and the various options available to candidates to apply for SQE exemptions, as well as the criteria candidates must meet to obtain exemptions from one or more of the assessments.
Let’s first briefly discuss the structure and basic elements of the SQE.
The SQE Exam
The Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) is a single, centralised assessment for all aspiring solicitors in England and Wales. It was introduced on 1 September 2021 and is administered by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA).
To qualify as a solicitor through the SQE, you must:
- hold a degree or equivalent
- complete two years’ qualifying work experience (QWE) (foreign qualified lawyers are exempt)
- pass the two stages of the SQE assessment (unless an exemption applies)
- meet the SRA character and suitability requirements
After completing these four elements, not necessarily in any particular order, you may apply for admission to the Roll of Solicitors of England and Wales.
The SQE exam: a two-stage assessment
The SQE exam has two stages: SQE1 and SQE2.
SQE1 consists of two Functioning Legal Knowledge (FLK) assessments with 180 multiple choice questions each. In total, therefore, SQE1 includes 360 questions. The exam covers various legal practice areas and assesses the application of knowledge of substantive and procedural law.
SQE2 tests several foundational legal skills in the context of different practice areas, using simulated legal environments known as ‘stations’. The SQE2 stations involve role-play scenarios and computer-based tasks which reflect the type of work a newly qualified solicitor would need to carry out in practice.
The SQE exams also include points of ethics and professional conduct which are pervasive throughout the assessments.
Candidates must pass SQE1 (both FLK1 & FLK2) before they can attempt SQE2, and are allowed three attempts at each of the SQE exams within a six-year period.
The costs to sit the assessments are £1,558 for SQE1, and £2,422 for SQE2. Exam fees however do not include the cost of preparation courses or retakes for unsuccessful candidates.
The SQE exams are administered on behalf of the SRA by Kaplan, the sole assessment provider who is not permitted to offer preparatory courses.
Who is eligible to apply for SQE exemptions?
To qualify as a solicitor candidates must pass both stages of the SQE assessment. Aside from limited exceptions, which we will discuss below, domestic candidates such as LLB graduates or paralegals generally cannot apply for SQE exemptions.
The SRA, does however, allow qualified lawyers in foreign jurisdictions to apply for exemptions from either FLK1, FLK2 or SQE2. An exemption may only be granted from an exam as a whole, not from a particular part of an assessment (i.e., only from certain practice areas or skills).
A qualified lawyer for this purpose is an individual who holds a legal professional qualification which allows a right to practise in another jurisdiction, or even in England and Wales (e.g., a barrister).
SQE Exemptions for LPC Practice Course (LPC) Graduates
Special arrangements are available to LPC graduates. Candidates who have successfully completed the LPC can use qualifying work experience (QWE) and SQE2 as an equivalent to a period of recognised training (PRT).
LPC graduates do not need to sit SQE1 or take the Professional Skills Course. They are eligible for admittance to the roll after passing SQE2 and completing QWE.
This may prove beneficial for graduates who have not yet secured a training contract with a law firm, given the increasing challenges in doing so over the past several years.
Candidates will need to submit an application to the SRA and advise that they intend to use QWE and SQE2 as an equivalent to a period of recognised training. There is no fee attached to this application.
If you are not sure whether to complete the traditional LPC route or take SQE2 in combination with QWE, refer to our article to help you decide which route is the right for you.
Pre-agreed/individual SQE exemption
Lawyers from certain foreign jurisdictions are entitled to pre-agreed exemptions or may apply for SQE2 individual exemptions, if they have two years of work experience, as described in the table below (which is updated regularly by the SRA).
Agreed exemptions from the SQE only apply to lawyers who have qualified through the full legal qualification route in their home jurisdiction and have not cross-qualified or transferred into their home jurisdiction from another jurisdiction.
Those who have qualified into a jurisdiction from another jurisdiction, or lawyers without pre-agreed exemptions, may still apply for SQE exemptions, however their application will be assessed on a case-by-case basis.
Those who are qualified lawyers in a foreign jurisdiction and considering taking the SQE assessments should therefore first check if their jurisdiction and qualifications are included in the pre-agreed exemption list.
If the jurisdiction is not currently listed, candidates are encouraged to contact their local bar association/law society and ask them to contact the SRA to apply for pre-agreed exemptions. Once an SQE exemption is granted to a certain jurisdiction, all lawyers qualified in that jurisdiction may apply to benefit from it.
The SRA approach to qualified lawyers seeking admission as a solicitor of England and Wales promotes flexibility in recognition of the qualification and experiences of overseas lawyers. It is therefore expected that the SRA will continue to grant more pre-agreed exemptions to foreign qualified lawyers, especially from SQE2, in the future.
Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland solicitors
Solicitors of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland are exempt from all SQE assessments and may simply apply for admission as solicitors in England and Wales. They need not apply for these exemptions separately.
Non-exempt foreign qualified lawyers who have completed the LPC
Foreign qualified lawyers with an LPC would not automatically be eligible for an agreed exemption from any SQE assessment simply by completing the LPC. This is because the SQE assesses knowledge and skills at the level of a newly qualified solicitor.
The LPC however prepares candidates for day one of their training contract, during which their knowledge and skills are further developed. It does not, therefore, prepare candidates for day one as a newly qualified solicitor, as the complete SQE route intends.
Such qualified lawyers can, however, use the LPC as part of their evidence, together with other qualifications and/or work experience, when applying for an exemption from one or both of the SQE assessments.
An SQE exemption would only be granted if the qualified lawyer could provide satisfactory evidence that their qualifications and/or work experience were equivalent in content and standard to the SQE assessments.
Alternatively, a foreign qualified lawyer with an LPC could also choose to qualify by completing QWE and SQE2, as an equivalent to the PRT.
Foreign qualified lawyers who have passed the QLTS MCT before 1 September 2021
QLTS candidates who have passed the MCT but not the OSCE before 1 September 2021 are subject to a transition period and have two options:
- to pass the OSCE and apply for admission to the SRA by 31 August 2022; or
- to sit the SQE2 exam as an alternative to the OSCE, and if they pass apply for admission to the SRA by 31 August 2023.
An MCT candidate who has previously sat the OSCE and failed, is not precluded from taking SQE2.
Candidates who do not complete any of these two options will need to take both the SQE1 and SQE2 exams, unless they are able to obtain any exemptions.
Foreign qualified lawyers with a pre-agreed exemption from SQE2 who have also completed the LPC and passed the QLTS MCT
The phased-out qualification system, which requires a Qualifying Law Degree (QLD) or Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL), plus LPC and period of recognised training (PRT) is intended for people who are not already qualified as a lawyer.
It is entirely separate and distinct from the system of qualification that was introduced for non-qualified lawyers under the SQE, which requires completion of a degree or equivalent, SQE1, QWE and SQE2.
After the introduction of the SQE on 1 September 2021, anyone wishing to become a solicitor must decide whether to apply under the current system (if they fall within the transitional arrangements) or under the SQE system.
For example, a Scottish solicitor who is entitled to a pre-agreed exemption from SQE2, and who has completed the LPC and passed the MCT, could choose to:
- Apply as a qualified lawyer under the current system via the QLTS if they fall within the transitional arrangements (i.e., if they have passed the MCT before 1 September 2021). They could then either pass the OSCE and apply for admission by 31 August 2022 or pass SQE2 and apply for admission by 31 August 2023.
- Apply as a non-qualified person under the phased-out system and provide evidence that they have a QLD or GDL, LPC and PRT, provided they fall within the transitional arrangements. If they do not have a PRT, they can choose to qualify via equivalent means by completing QWE and SQE2 (as an equivalent to the PRT). As QWE does not (unlike the period of recognised training) require candidates to develop their skills and knowledge to the level of a newly qualified solicitor, they also need to pass the SQE2 assessment, which provides assurances that they are competent to be admitted as a solicitor.
- Apply as a qualified lawyer under the SQE system. There would be no requirement for QWE. They would be exempt from SQE2, but they would need to take SQE1 as the Scottish qualification is not equivalent in content and standard to SQE1.
Foreign qualified lawyers with a pre-agreed exemption from SQE2 who have also completed the LPC
A foreign qualified lawyer who is entitled to a pre-agreed exemption from SQE2, and who has completed the LPC, could choose to:
- Apply as a non-qualified person under the phased-out system and provide evidence that they have a QLD or GDL, LPC and PRT, provided they fall within the transitional arrangements. If they do not have a PRT, they can choose to qualify via equivalent means by completing QWE and SQE2 as an equivalent to the PRT.
- Apply as a qualified lawyer under the SQE system. There would be no requirement to complete QWE and they would be exempt from SQE2 but need to take SQE1.
Foreign qualified lawyers who have passed the QLTS MCT before 1 September 2021 and who are entitled to a pre-agreed exemption from SQE2
If a candidate has taken and passed the MCT and their jurisdiction has a pre-agreed SQE exemption, their options to qualify as a solicitor are:
- to complete the QLTS qualification by taking and passing the OSCE or SQE2 before the expiry of the relevant transition period; or
- to complete the SQE qualification by applying for the pre-agreed exemption and taking and passing the remaining SQE assessments.
The MCT pass results may not be combined with a pre-agreed exemption from SQE2. They may also not be transferred over to the SQE. Candidates must apply for a new exemption even if they have an existing one for either stage of the QLTS assessments (such as LPC graduates who were exempt from the MCT).
If a foreign qualified lawyer has previously taken the MCT and failed, and was unable to pass the exam before 1 September 2021, they can no longer attempt the MCT and must pass the SQE assessments.
SQE exemptions for all other foreign qualified lawyers
If you are a foreign qualified lawyer and your jurisdiction is not listed on the SRA pre-agreed exemptions list, you may still apply for SQE exemptions, which will be assessed based on your qualifications and personal work experience.
Lawyers whose jurisdiction is listed by the SRA as being entitled to pre-agreed exemptions may apply for additional SQE exemptions beyond those which have been agreed.
The application is for an SQE assessment exemption only. The SRA will not grant exemptions from the other qualification requirements, such as a degree or equivalent, character and suitability requirements and the English and Welsh language requirement (if this is applicable to you). However, foreign qualified lawyers are automatically exempt from QWE.
To be granted an exemption, your qualification or experience must be equivalent to the whole of a separate assessment within the SQE, that is:
- SQE1 FLK1
- SQE1 FLK2
As mentioned previously, the SRA will not grant exemptions from part of an SQE assessment.
Candidates must show the SRA how their qualifications or experience are based on a legal system that is not substantially different from that of England and Wales.
What this means is that there should not be a gap in legal qualification content which is of such importance that a candidate could not practise safely without knowledge of that content. Where this cannot be demonstrated, the SRA will not grant any SQE exemptions.
In addition, in order to gain exemptions from the SQE, a candidate’s foreign qualification or jurisdiction must require them to comply with a code of conduct or ethical obligations that are similar to those set out by the SRA Code of Conduct.
Obtaining exemptions from SQE1 (FLK1 and/or FLK2)
To be granted an exemption from SQE1, candidates must satisfy the SRA that:
- their qualifications and/or experience cover the areas of law that are assessed in SQE1, FLK1 and/or FLK2; and
- the law of these qualifications or the law which they have practised in relevant work experience is not substantially different to the law of England and Wales in these areas.
Evidence will need to clearly show how a candidate’s knowledge, based on their qualifications and/or experience is not substantially different to the areas of English law as set out in the SQE1 Assessment Specification.
Obtaining exemptions from SQE2
Where a candidate has the same practice rights as a solicitor of England and Wales and at least two years’ professional legal work experience gained either as part of their professional legal qualification or post-qualification, they may be exempt from the whole of the SQE2 exam.
Candidates will need to have one or more of these practising rights:
- Criminal litigation
- Civil litigation (also referred to as dispute resolution)
- Property practice
- Wills and intestacy, probate administration and practice
- Business organisations rules and procedures
If a candidate has less than two years’ professional legal work experience, they may still apply for an exemption from SQE2, but the SRA will require evidence to demonstrate how their qualifications and experience is equivalent in content and standard to the SQE2 Assessment Specification.
The level of practical legal skills to be demonstrated is equivalent to level three of the SRA Threshold Standard.
The application fee for an exemption is £265.
If a foreign qualified lawyer is granted an SQE2 exemption, they may also need to show the SRA their English or Welsh language competence. This will be sought when applying for the first practising certificate.
The Application for SQE exemptions
The SRA is the only body that is responsible for assessing whether any candidate can obtain such an exemption or not.
The SRA advise that candidates do not book an assessment until they have had their SQE exemptions confirmed by the SRA. If exemptions are not sought before booking an assessment, the whole assessment fee must be met.
It is not possible to predict what the chances are of securing exemptions, as this will be assessed on a case-by-case basis. Candidates must apply to the SRA and await their decision.
Candidates should take into account that it may take several months for their application to be processed, which may delay the progress of the expected time to qualify as a solicitor, especially if any application is eventually denied by the SRA.
SQE as an opportunity for foreign qualified lawyers
The regulatory framework in the UK supports the continuity of business and trading arrangements within the legal services sector. International recognition and granting exemptions from the SQE are expected to enhance lawyer transferability and strengthen the position of English law as the law of choice internationally and England and Wales as a global legal centre.
These developments in the English solicitor qualification create a unique and affordable opportunity for foreign lawyers to pursue a fast track route to dual-qualification as a solicitor of England and Wales.
If you are a qualified lawyer and believe you could be entitled, in principle, to an exemption from a part of the SQE, you may apply to the SRA for an exemption.
Foreign lawyers with exemption from SQE2 would only need to take SQE1 in their country at Pearson VUE centres, without travelling to the UK, with no experience or training requirement to complete. They will also benefit from substantial savings of over £5,000 in exam and preparation fees and travel costs.
As a result, foreign lawyers could potentially become qualified solicitors in just a few months and with an investment of just over £3,000.
As the President of the Law Society of England and Wales, I. Stephanie Boyce, said in a recent report about the Economic value of English law, “Solicitors in England and Wales are well-placed to advise international business and play an important role in the global economy.”
Obtaining the solicitor title will therefore enhance your professional profile and marketability and enable you to offer a wider range of services to your clients who have a global footprint.