SQE Exemptions: Introduction
The route to becoming an English qualified solicitor changed significantly with the introduction of the SQE on 1 September 2021. This change has also affected foreign lawyers, who are now also required to follow this route to qualification and take the SQE exams. However, the extent to which a foreign lawyer is required to sit for the SQE exams depends on if they are able to obtain an SQE exemption. This article provides foreign lawyers with an in-depth guide to the SQE exemptions process.
SQE: Route to Qualification
Under the new system, there are four elements that candidates must meet in order to become an English qualified lawyer:
- Hold a degree level qualification in any subject (or equivalent).
- Completion of the two SQE exams: (i) the SQE1 exam; and (ii) the SQE2 exam.
- Completion of two years’ of SQE qualifying work experience (QWE).
- Meet the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s (SRA) character and suitability requirements.
Once the above elements are met, the individual will then be able to apply for admission to the Rolls of Solicitors of England and Wales.
As mentioned above, the SQE (Solicitors Qualifying Examination) is divided into two parts: SQE1 and SQE2.
The SQE1 exam assesses candidates on their functioning legal knowledge of the law. Candidates are assessed by way of a series of scenario-based multiple-choice questions (360 in total) that must be answered via a computer. SQE1 is split into two sections, Functioning Legal Knowledge 1 (FLK1) and Functioning Legal Knowledge 2 (FLK2).
The areas of the law that are contained in FLK1 are: Business Law and Practice; Dispute Resolution; Contract; Tort; Legal System of England and Wales; Constitutional and Administrative Law and EU Law; and Legal Services.
The areas of the law that are contained in FLK2 are: Property Law and Practice; Wills and the Administration of Estates; Solicitors Accounts; Land Law; Trusts; and Criminal Law and Practice.
The 360 multiple-choice questions will cover the various areas of the law mentioned above. Ethics and professional conduct issues are also assessed in the SQE1 exam, however this is done pervasively throughout both FLK1 and FLK2.
The SQE2 exam tests candidates on their practical legal skills. The legal skills that are tested are varied and, for example, include: legal writing, legal drafting, legal research, advocacy and interviewing and attendance note taking.
The areas of the law that are assessed in the SQE2 exam are much fewer than the SQE1 exam and include the following:
- Criminal Litigation: Criminal liability
- Dispute Resolution: Contract Law and Tort Law
- Property Practice: Land Law
- Wills and Intestacy, Probate Administration and Practice: Trust Law
- Business organisations, rules and procedures: Contract Law
SQE Exemptions for Foreign Lawyers
It is possible for foreign lawyers to obtain SQE exemptions that would exempt them from having to take the SQE1 exam and/or the SQE2 exam. Per the SRA guidance, a ‘foreign lawyer’ is an individual who holds a legal professional qualification that allows them to practice in England and Wales or another international jurisdiction. As such, no other category of persons will be able to obtain SQE exemptions (e.g. paralegals or students are not able to obtain SQE exemptions).
In order to obtain SQE exemptions, foreign lawyers will have to submit an SQE exemption application to the SRA, which is the body that is responsible for deciding whether or not an SQE exemption will be granted.
Candidates should not book to sit either the SQE1 exam and/or the SQE2 exam if they are seeking an exemption. Candidates should first wait to receive the outcome of their SQE exemptions application so as to avoid potentially wasting money.
There are two categories of exemptions that a foreign lawyer may apply for: (i) an agreed exemption; and (ii) an individual exemption. Before taking a look at these exemptions, let us first provide some context to the SRA’s SQE exemptions regime.
Taking a step back, it may be helpful to understand the rationale underpinning the SQE exemptions regime that has been adopted by the SRA. As mentioned previously in the article, a foreign lawyer is an individual that holds a legal professional qualification that allows the individual to practice in England and Wales or another international jurisdiction.
From the SRA’s perspective, it is important that the knowledge, skills and competencies that a foreign lawyer has gained from obtaining their foreign professional legal qualification is equivalent to the knowledge, skills and competencies that one would gain if they were to undergo the SQE route.
It is possible that some elements of a foreign legal qualification may satisfy the above criteria, whilst other elements do not. As a result, the parts of the SQE exam that a foreign lawyer may obtain an exemption for are varied. A foreign lawyer may be exempt from one of the following:
- SQE1 FLK Assessment 1 or SQE1 FLK Assessment 2; or
- SQE1 in full; or
- SQE2 in full.
If a foreign lawyer wishes to receive an exemption for SQE1 and/or SQE2, they will need to show that:
- the foreign legal qualification covers content that is not substantially different to areas of English law; and
- the level at which such content is assessed is equivalent to the SRA’s standard (i.e. that the foreign qualification tests candidates on their ability to Identify legal principles relevant to the area of practice and apply them appropriately and effectively to individual cases).
SQE: Route to Qualification for Foreign Lawyers
It is important to flag that the route to qualification is slightly different for foreign lawyers. Under the new route to qualification, foreign lawyers must satisfy the following requirements:
- Hold a degree level qualification in any subject (or an equivalent).
- Completion of the SQE1 and SQE2 exams (unless the individual wishes to apply for an exemption).
- Meet the SRA’s character and suitability requirements.
You will note that, per the above, foreign lawyers are not required to complete two years’ of QWE in order to qualify. However, the SRA will take into account a foreign lawyer’s prior work experience when considering their application for SQE exemptions. A foreign lawyer’s SQE exemption application will have to demonstrate that the competencies developed from their prior work experience are satisfactorily developed to the level that is assessed by the SQE exams.
Foreign lawyers may also be required to demonstrate their English competency where there is a serious or concrete doubt about the lawyer’s language competency. This language requirement would take place post-admission and when the lawyer first applies for their practicing certificate.
SQE2 Exemption (Agreed Exemption)
SQE agreed exemptions apply only to the SQE2 exam. Agreed exemptions mean that the SRA has reviewed the legal professional qualification of another jurisdiction and has concluded that the competencies developed by that legal qualification are equivalent to the competencies required from the SQE2 exam.
The SRA has already reviewed the legal qualifications of a number of international jurisdictions and has granted some of these legal qualifications agreed exemption status. This means that certain foreign lawyers are able to apply for an agreed exemption, provided that their jurisdiction / legal qualification is set out in the SRA’s list of jurisdictions / legal qualifications with agreed exemption status.
It is important to note that agreed exemptions apply only to foreign lawyers who have qualified through their jurisdiction’s full legal qualification route. Thus, this precludes foreign lawyers that have cross qualified from another jurisdiction.
The list of legal qualifications (and their corresponding jurisdiction) that the SRA has designated as having SQE2 agreed exemption status is set out below:
- Belgium (Qualification: Advocaat)
- Brazil (Qualification: Advogado)
- Czech Republic (Qualification: Advokat)
- Denmark, Faroe Islands and Greenland (Qualification: Advokat)
- Germany (Qualification: Rechtsanwalt)
- Hong Kong (Qualification: Solicitor)
- Hungary (Qualification: Ugyved)
- Luxembourg (Qualification: Avocat à la Cour)
- Netherlands (Qualification: Advocaat)
- Romania (Qualification: Avocat)
- Scotland (Qualification: Solicitor)
- Sweden (Qualification: Advokat)
This list will be updated as and when the SRA grants legal qualifications from other international jurisdictions agreed exemption status.
How to Apply for an SQE2 Agreed Exemption
Foreign lawyers will need to create a ‘mySRA’ account in order to apply for an SQE2 agreed exemption. Candidates will be asked various questions before then being able to submit their SQE exemption application. A £265 fee is required to be paid in order to make the application.
Foreign lawyers who have applied for an SQE2 agreed exemption will find out the results of their SQE2 exemption application usually within 180 days of submission.
Individuals that are qualified in Scotland are exempt from having to take the SQE2 exam. A different exemption will need to be applied for, known as a UK lawyer agreed exemption. This exemption can also be applied for in an individual’s mySRA account. There is no fee required to be paid for this type of application.
SQE2 Exemption (Individual Exemption)
The SRA has also reviewed some legal professional qualifications and has concluded that they do not meet the SRA’s requirements for an agreed exemption. The legal qualifications (and their corresponding jurisdictions) that fall into this category are the following:
- Australia (Qualification: Solicitor and/or Barrister (Australian legal practitioner))
- Canada (British Columbia) (Qualification: Lawyer)
- Canada (Ontario) (Qualification: Lawyer)
- Canada (Saskatchewan) (Qualification: Lawyer)
- Chile (Qualification: Abogado)
- Cyprus (Qualification: Advocate)
- Dominican Republic (Qualification: Abogado)
- Greece (Qualification: Dikigoros)
- Hong Kong (Qualification: Barrister)
- India (Assam) (Qualification: Advocate)
- India (Delhi) (Qualification: Advocate)
- India (Goa) (Qualification: Advocate)
- India (West Bengal) (Qualification: Advocate)
- Iran (Qualification: Attorney)
- Israel (Qualification: Advocate)
- Italy (Qualification: Avvocato)
- Japan (Qualification: Bengoshi (Attorney in Law))
- Japan (Qualification: Public Prosecutor)
- Jordan (Qualification: Lawyer)
- Kenya (Qualification: Advocate)
- Lebanon (Qualification: Lawyer)
- Macau SAR, China (Qualification: Lawyer)
- Malaysia (Qualification: Advocate and solicitor)
- Malta (Qualification: Advocate)
- Moldova (Qualification: Lawyer)
- New Zealand (Qualification: Barrister and Solicitor)
- Nigeria (Qualification: Barrister and Solicitor)
- Pakistan (Qualification: Advocate)
- Philippines (Qualification: Attorney)
- Portugal (Qualification: Advogado)
- Russia (Qualification: Advocate)
- Rwanda (Qualification: Advocate)
- Saudi Arabia (Qualification: Lawyer)
- Singapore (Qualification: Advocate or Solicitor of the Supreme Court)
- South Africa (Qualification: Attorney)
- Spain (Qualification: Abogado)
- Sri Lanka (Qualification: Attorney at Law)
- The People’s Republic of China (Qualification: Lawyer)
- Trinidad and Tobago (Qualification: Attorney at Law)
- Turkey (Qualification: Avukat)
- USA (Georgia) (Qualification: Attorney)
- USA (New Jersey) (Qualification: Attorney at Law)
- USA (New York) (Qualification: Attorney)
- USA (Pennsylvania) (Qualification: Attorney)
- USA (Texas) (Qualification: Attorney-at-Law)
- USA (Washington DC) (Qualification: Attorney)
- Venezuela (Qualification: Abogados)
- Zimbabwe (Qualification: Legal Practitioner)
Foreign lawyers who hold one of the above legal qualifications will not be able to apply for an agreed exemption. Instead, these foreign lawyers will have to apply for an SQE2 individual exemption.
However, a foreign lawyer whose legal qualification is shown above will only be able to apply for an SQE2 individual exemption if they have at least two years’ of legal work experience gained either as part of their legal qualification or after it (or a combination of both).
Foreign lawyers will need to show how their experience covers the following five practice rights:
- Criminal litigation (including advising clients at the police station)
- Civil litigation, which is referred to as dispute resolution on the form
- Property practice
- Wills and intestacy, probate administration and practice
- Business organisations rules and procedures
If a foreign lawyer does not have two years’ of legal work experience, then they will be required to submit further evidence. This evidence will need to demonstrate how their experience is equivalent to the content and standard of the practical legal skills that are assessed in the SQE2 exam.
If a foreign lawyer does not see their legal qualification in either of the two lists set out above, they can choose to take either one of the following options:
- Get in touch with the law society or bar of their jurisdiction and request that they make an exemption application to the SRA for their particular legal qualification.
- Make an SQE2 individual exemption application (the same SQE2 individual exemption requirements described above will also apply).
SQE1 Exemption (Individual Exemption)
The concept of an agreed exemption does not apply for SQE1. Foreign lawyers will be required to submit an SQE1 individual exemption application in order to obtain an SQE1 exemption (for either FLK1 and/or FLK2). Foreign lawyers will need to demonstrate the following:
- The foreign legal qualification and/or legal work experience cover the areas of the law that are assessed for the SQE1 exam.
- Qualifications and/or legal work experience enables the lawyer to identify legal principles and apply them appropriately in various scenarios.
- The jurisdiction and/or work experience of the foreign lawyer is not substantially different to the laws of England and Wales.
- The foreign lawyer is able to produce samples of their work evidencing their competence and/or legal work experience.
Candidates are able to apply for an SQE1 exemption using the same form for an SQE2 exemption.
SQE Exemptions LPC
Foreign lawyers can choose to qualify as a solicitor in England and Wales via the LPC qualification route. This route will remain open to foreign lawyers until 31 December 2032. Following completion of the LPC, foreign lawyers would then typically be required to do a period of recognised training (i.e. a training contract). However, the SRA will recognise two years’ of qualifying work experience and passing the SQE2 exam as equivalent to a period of recognised training.
It is important to flag that the LPC does not give candidates an agreed exemption for the SQE2 exam. This is because the assessment standards of the SQE are higher than that of the LPC (despite the fact that both exams cover similar areas of the law).
SQE Exemptions BPTC
The SRA has also reviewed the BPTC (The Bar Professional Training Course). This is a postgraduate course that enables law graduates to become barristers in England and Wales.
The SRA has concluded that this legal qualification does not meet the requirements to qualify for an agreed exemption. As a result, individuals who hold this legal qualification will need to apply for an SQE individual exemption in the usual way.
SQE Exemptions CILEx Practitioner
The SRA has also reviewed the CILEX qualification and has also concluded that this qualification does not meet the requirements to qualify for an agreed exemption. Thus, individuals with this legal qualification will also have to apply for an SQE individual exemption.
Additionally, the trade mark attorney qualification has also not been designated with agreed exemption status. Thus, individuals with this qualification will also have to apply for an SQE individual exemption.
It is important that foreign lawyers carefully consider if they are eligible to receive SQE exemptions. Successfully obtaining an exemption will significantly shorten the timeline to becoming an English qualified solicitor as it may mean that some exams (i.e. SQE1 and/or SQE2) will not need to be taken. This will free up a candidate’s time in dedicating more study hours to the exams that they are required to take. The application process may seem daunting; however, it is well worth making an application as this could also mean candidates pay less overall in reaching qualification stage.
The timeline for receiving confirmation from the SRA that an exemption has been granted can take some time. Thus, it is important to take action early on in the process. This is because the timings for when an exemption confirmation is received will have a direct impact on your ability to book to take the SQE exams. You do not want to receive an SQE exemption confirmation and then have to wait a long time for a booking assessment window to open.
If in doubt, candidates should also reach out directly to the SRA for clarification regarding potential exemptions.