The Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) route to qualifying as a solicitor of England and Wales allows aspiring solicitors to qualify upon completion of the following steps:
- Complete a degree in any subject
- Pass SQE1 (FLK1 and FLK2) and SQE2 assessments
- Complete two years of qualifying work experience (QWE)
- Meet character and suitability requirements
Depending on the candidate’s background and experience, it may be possible to receive exemptions from (part of) the SQE assessments. In this article, we will explore the possible exemptions for each candidate category.
What is an exemption?
Candidates seeking to practice as solicitors in England and Wales can come from a range of different backgrounds, such as foreign-qualified lawyers, qualified UK barristers, or students undertaking the LPC, for example. Depending on each candidate’s level of education and experience, they may be granted an exemption by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) from all or part of the SQE assessments. This means that they have obtained the equivalent knowledge and skills of one or more SQE stage through another means, and therefore do not need to complete those stages in the SQE qualification process.
SQE exam exemptions only apply to qualified lawyers. However, in certain other cases, such as LPC grads who wish to complete their qualification through the SQE route instead of via a training contract, candidates will not need to sit the SQE1 assessments.
Are there any exemptions for SQE?
Depending on a candidate’s qualifications and experience, exemptions may be granted by the SRA from the following SQE assessments:
- SQE1 Functioning Legal Knowledge (FLK) 1
- SQE1 Functioning Legal Knowledge (FLK) 2
- SQE1 in full
- SQE2 in full
It is not possible to receive exemptions from just one part of an assessment. Candidates must show that their qualifications and/or experience are equivalent to the whole of a separate SQE assessment and have been acquired in a legal system that is not substantially different from the system in England and Wales.
Evidence of the following criteria must be provided when applying for SQE1 or SQE2 exemptions:
- SQE 1: Candidate’s prior qualifications and/or experience cover the areas of law which are assessed in FLK1 and/or FLK2
- SQE 2: Candidate has two years of professional work experience and holds one or more of these practising rights:
- Criminal litigation
- Civil litigation/dispute resolution
- Property practice
- Wills and intestacy, probate administration and practice
- Business organisations rules and procedures
There are no exemptions from the degree requirement, or from the English or Welsh language requirement (where applicable).
SQE agreed exemptions
The SRA has considered legal qualifications from a number of jurisdictions, and has agreed* to grant exemptions for specific stages of the SQE in some instances:
- England and Wales (barrister, CILEx practitioner, chartered legal executive) – no agreed SQE1 or SQE2 exemptions (see below for more information)
- England and Wales (licensed conveyancer) – SQE1 and SQE2 exemptions currently under consideration
- Scotland (solicitor) – no agreed SQE1 exemptions; SQE2 exemption agreed (see below for more information)
- Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland (solicitor) – SQE1 and SQE2 exemption agreed (see below for more information)
- Australia (barrister) – SQE1 and SQE2 exemptions currently under consideration
- Denmark (advokat) – no agreed SQE1 exemptions; SQE2 exemption currently under consideration
- Hong Kong (solicitor) – no agreed SQE1 exemptions; SQE2 exemption currently under consideration
- India (advocate) – SQE1 and SQE2 exemptions currently under consideration
- Singapore (advocate and solicitor of the Supreme Court) – SQE1 and SQE2 exemptions currently under consideration
* This is the information available as of September 2021, please check the SRA website for further updates.
Foreign-qualified lawyers SQE exemption
Do I have to be in one of the recognised jurisdictions as a qualified lawyer?
With some exceptions as outlined below, foreign-qualified solicitors must pass the SQE1 and SQE2 assessments in order to practise in England and Wales. They must also hold a degree and meet character and suitability requirements, but they do not need to meet the two-year qualifying work experience criteria, as the SRA will recognise their existing professional experience.
Qualified solicitors from Scotland are exempted from sitting the SQE2 assessments, and must apply for this exemption through the SRA website.
These candidates may also qualify for further exemptions from the SQE1 assessments depending on their solicitor qualifications and experience.
Qualified solicitors from Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland are exempted from the SQE1 and SQE2 assessments, and do not need to apply for these exemptions.
Qualified solicitors from other jurisdictions may qualify for SQE1 and/or SQE2 exemptions based on their qualifications and work experience. The qualifications or experience must be equivalent to the whole of an SQE assessment, and must be acquired in a legal system that is not substantially different from the system in England and Wales. Candidates who receive an exemption from the SQE2 assessments may also be required to demonstrate their English or Welsh language competence. This may be achieved through an English language test or confirming with evidence that the candidate’s degree was taught in English.
For all foreign-qualified solicitors, when applying for admission, a certificate of good standing must also be submitted for the SRA to check character and suitability requirements before granting admission.
SQE LPC exemption
Does the LPC exempt me from SQE?
Aspiring solicitors who have started the qualification process through the traditional Legal Practice Course (LPC) route (i.e. have started or accepted a place in a law degree before 21 September 2021 or have started or accepted a place in a CPE/GDL/LPC before 1 September 2021) are covered under the transitional arrangements established by the SRA. This means that these candidates can pursue this route to qualify up until 31 December 2032, or they can instead choose to complete the process through the SQE route.
For these candidates, there is no agreed exemption from the SQE assessments. However, the following options do apply for LPC graduates:
- The training contract can be replaced by two years of qualifying work experience and passing the SQE2 assessments (these candidates will not be required to sit the SQE1 assessments).
- Candidates can apply for an exemption from the training contract based on existing work experience, with detailed evidence that the Practice Skills Standards have been achieved through prior experience.
There are also CILEx exemptions for LPC graduates, so grads wanting to pursue this path to practising law can apply for full exemption from CILEx qualifications and for CILEx graduate membership. CILEx lawyers are regulated by the CILEx Regulation rather than the SRA.
SQE exemption for CILEx
What options are available for CILEx?
Making further enquiries about the future status of CILEx following the introduction of the SQE we received the following response from the SRA. As a legal executive wishing to qualify as a solicitor of England and Wales there are a couple of options available to you. If you have completed, started, or accepted an offer of a place for:
- A qualifying law degree (accepted by 21 September 2021);
- The Common Professional Examination/ Graduate Diploma in Law (accepted before 1 September 2021); and
- The Legal Practise Course (accepted before 1 September 2021).
The legal executive equivalent means route is open until 31 December 2032. Alternatively you can choose to qualify through the SQE.
SQE exemption for QLTS
Do I have to switch to SQE from QLTS?
The Qualified Lawyers Transfer Scheme (QLTS) is the former route for foreign-qualified lawyers to qualify as solicitors in England and Wales. For candidates following this route and wishing to switch to the SQE route, it is important to note that any QLTS exemptions that had been granted previously do not automatically transfer to the SQE.
Candidates must submit a new SQE exemption application through the SRA.
Candidates who have passed the QLTS MCT before 1 September 2021 can sit the OSCE assessments and apply for admission up to 31 August 2022. Alternatively, candidates can instead sit SQE2 to complete the qualification process up to 31 August 2023.
SQE exemption for barristers
Are barristers exempt from SQE?
Barristers (as well as CILEx practitioners or chartered legal executives) must sit and pass the SQE assessments to practise as solicitors in England and Wales. There are no agreed exemptions for these roles, but candidates may apply for an individual SQE exemption based on their qualifications and experience. Candidates must submit an SQE qualified lawyers exemption application to the SRA if they believe they may be entitled to an exemption, i.e. if their experience is equivalent to the whole of an SQE assessment and has been acquired in a legal system not substantially different to the system in England and Wales.
These candidates do not need to complete two years of SQE qualifying work experience, but will need to submit a certificate of good standing for the SRA to confirm their character and suitability requirements.
How to apply for SQE exemptions
If you believe you could be entitled to SQE exemptions under any of the categories described above, you can apply for the exemptions through the SRA website. You must create a mySRA account, obtain your SRA number, and complete the relevant form. You will need to provide detailed evidence of your experience in each area of law as relevant to the specific SQE assessment, such as certificates, transcripts, redacted work samples, and references. The exemption application form includes the following sections:
- Personal details
- Details and contact info for your current jurisdiction
- Confirm code of conduct criteria for your current jurisdiction
- Which exemption(s) you are applying for
- Examples and evidence of knowledge and experience in the areas of law and skills for (as applicable):
- SQE1 FLK1
- SQE1 FLK2
It is important to apply for any exemptions and have them confirmed by the SRA before booking any assessments. This should be done in conjunction with the other pre-booking steps including a diversity survey and requesting reasonable adjustments for sitting your SQE exam.
The SRA aims to make its decision on each application within 180 days for foreign-qualified lawyer SQE exemptions or for training contract exemptions for LPC graduates, or within 30 days when applying for the pre-agreed exemptions for intra-UK candidates.