Challenging SQE Results: a General Guidance to the SQE Appeals Process

Challenging SQE results is regulated by the SQE Appeals Policy (Policy). This article is a detailed guidance for aspiring solicitors. It does not constitute legal advice. Note, we provide the opportunity for a free analysis of your SQE2 breakdown. If you require this service, please book a call at link.

The Policy has identified four main underlying principles. They are some kind of ‘overriding objectives’ that the SRA purports to achieve:

  • Equality and fairness in appeals consideration.
  • Provision of reasoning for any actions taken or decisions made.
  • Absence of bias in the appeals process.
  • Establishment of reasonable timescales for both submissions and responses.

However, there are important limitations:

  1. Academic judgement. Candidates cannot challenge the academic judgement of assessors. Nor can they challenge the criteria used for assessment.
  2. Disagreement. Candidates cannot dispute the outcome of their mitigating circumstances claim.
  3. Ignorance. Candidates cannot argue lack of understanding or awareness of the SQE Assessment Regulations.
SQE appeals

SQE Mitigating Circumstances

The Policy outlines three situations that may warrant an SQE appeal. Regardless of the grounds, candidates must demonstrate that the circumstances materially and adversely affected their marks or performance. Aspiring solicitors may rely on one or more of the following mitigating circumstances. The following explanation of the mitigations is based on our understanding. It does not imply endorsement or agreement by the SRA.

1. A mistake or irregularity in the administration or conduct of the assessment

This may include errors in setting or marking the assessment, issues with examination conditions, or procedural errors that could have affected the fairness or accuracy of the assessment. An example of such an error occurred in the SQE2 April 2023 sitting:

The error related specifically to a small number of students who achieved low scores on Business Case and Matter Analysis (BCMA), one of the sixteen “stations” that form part of SQE2. In a bid to reassure students, Kaplan launched a review, the results of which have just been published…

Finally, one candidate’s marks were increased for the BCMA assessment station, which led to them passing the SQE2 assessment overall.

[Regulator concludes review into SQE marking error, Thomas Connelly, Legal Cheek]

2. Evidence of bias in the conduct of the assessment

Evidence of bias in the assessment process may be seen as discriminatory treatment that affected your marks. This could involve unfair treatment by an assessor. One must show that they were treated differently from other candidates. This generally must be based on protected characteristics. While we are not aware of such cases, potential examples could include if an assessor acted unreasonably in your oral assessment. You should have grounds to believe that such treatment was based on your characteristics. Proving bias can be challenging from the candidate’s perspective. This is because assessors may intentionally play such a role. Good news – all oral assessments are video recorded. This allows the appeal body to review them.

3. Illness or other personal circumstances beyond his/her reasonable control.

This is subject to the Fit to Sit Policy and SQE Assessment Regulations. Candidates with disabilities should seek reasonable adjustments beforehand, which is their responsibility. Some candidates fail to apply for adjustments, unaware of their eligibility. This is particularly true for foreign solicitors. For example, some jurisdictions do not recognise certain conditions like dyslexia. It’s crucial to note that disability claims after the exam are generally not accepted.

An exception exists for disabilities or illnesses occurring just before or during SQE exams. But, candidates must have signed a “Fit to Sit” declaration for each assessment. This declaration confirms their fitness to sit the exam. It leaves little room for post-exam disability claims. While the policy allows for explanations in exceptional circumstances, success in such appeals is rare. The candidate must clearly demonstrate why they attempted the assessment despite their condition. See paragraph 4 Fit to Sit Policy:

… a candidate is able to clearly evidence why they attempted the assessment and signed the ‘fit to sit’ declaration.

So, the most likely scenario for a claim under this heading to apply is if something occurred during the exam. If this is the case, you must report it to the invigilator as soon as possible or before leaving the exam venue.

Types of SQE Appeals

There are two types of submissions available after receiving your results. Candidates opting for this procedure must pay an upfront fee, which will be refunded if successful.

  1. Clerical Check: This involves a check for errors in calculation or collation, with a fee of £100.
  2. Appeal: This consists of two stages – a ‘first stage appeal’ and a ‘final appeal’.

Aspiring solicitors must prove their case on the balance of probabilities. They should also submit evidence to support their application.

First Stage SQE Appeal

The first stage appeal is akin to the process used in various A-Level exams. It is a request for a review of the Assessment Board’s decision to fail a candidate or a finding of malpractice. The First Stage Appeal Panel cannot change a passing mark or adjust a candidate’s scores. But, see below ‘SQE appeal submission and outcome’. Grounds for this stage of the SQE appeal include:

  1. Mitigating Circumstances. These are circumstances that could not be presented to the Assessment Board before its decision. The fact that the candidate was unaware of their results is not a valid reason.
  2. Irregularity, Irrationality, or Unreasonableness. This involves situations where the decision of the Assessment Board, or the manner in which it was reached, displayed material irregularity, was manifestly unreasonable, or irrational.
  3. Malpractice or Improper Conduct. This occurs when the candidate disputes the Assessment Board’s finding of malpractice or improper conduct.

The fee for this stage is £350. Candidates are exempt from this fee if there was a failure to provide, a mistake, or an irregularity in an agreed reasonable adjustment plan.

Final SQE Appeal

The final SQE appeal is a request for a review of the decision made by the First Appeal Panel. If the appeal application is not refused, the candidate can choose between an oral hearing or a paper-based determination. In an oral hearing, the candidate has the right to be accompanied by a friend or relative. The grounds for this appeal are similar to those of the first stage and include:

  1. Material irregularity
  2. Manifest unreasonableness
  3. Irrationality
Final SQE Appeal: grounds

The fee for this appeal is £850. Candidates are exempt from this fee if there was a failure to provide, a mistake, or an irregularity in an agreed reasonable adjustment plan.

Delay defeats the SQE appeal

There are strict deadlines for the appeals. Sometimes there are exceptional circumstances which mean a candidate cannot reasonably meet such time limits. If that happens the aspiring solicitors must communicate it with SRA providing the respective evidence.

The first stage appeal must be submitted by 16:00 GMT on the tenth working day:

  • For ground A – after the date of notification of the outcome of the mitigating circumstances claim;
  • For grounds B and C – after the date of release of results.

The final SQE appeal must be submitted within ten working days of the date the candidate was notified of the decision of the First Stage Appeal Panel.

In case if you cannot submit the evidence together with the appeal, it will be an ‘appeal with evidence to follow’. You would have to agree with the SRA as to the deadline for the evidence.

For more information, refer to paragraph 4.6 of the SQE Appeals Policy.

If you are unable to meet the above deadlines for any reason, contact the SRA at Appeals submitted outside of the time limits will be considered exceptional. In such cases, candidates must provide independent written evidence explaining why the required timeframes were not met.

SQE Appeal Submission and Outcome

To submit your appeal, use the SQE First Stage Appeal Form on the SQE portal in your candidate account. The Appeal Panel will review the case within 25 working days of the appeal deadline. Candidates will receive the outcome within 35 working days.

For the Final Appeal, the Final Stage Appeal Panel first reviews the decision. The Director of Qualifications (Kaplan), may refuse the appeal before the panel convenes. This could happen if the appeal is frivolous or vexatious. The panel meets within 30 working days of the decision to permit the appeal.

Successful appeals usually allow candidates to retake the assessment, discounting their original attempt. If the appeal is due to malpractice or improper conduct, the candidate’s mark in the assessment will stand. It remains unclear if any extra marks will be granted to pass in such cases. Note, in the April 2023 SQE2 sitting, candidates’ scripts were re-marked in response to the error.

SQE1 vs SQE2 Appeals

The SQE Appeals Policy does not distinguish between SQE1 and SQE2 appeals, but relevance leans towards SQE2. SQE1 is a computer-based multiple-choice exam, making successful appeals likely only if the computer marked your paper incorrectly due to a question mistake or technical issues during the assessment. While a machine error is possible, the likelihood is minimal.

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