In the UK, Queen’s Counsel (QC) refers to a set of barristers and solicitors who the monarch appoints to be a part of Her Majesty’s Counsel learned in the law. To achieve this status, a barrister must have practiced law for ten years and be recommended by the Lord Chancellor.
Being appointed as Queen’s Counsel is sometimes referred to as ‘taking silk’ due to members wearing a particular silk gown, and is perceived as an excellent honour to achieve in a barrister’s career. Once given the right to wear a silk gown, a Queen’s Counsel then also has precedence over other Barristers in the Court.
The honour of being Queen’s Counsel is not limited to the UK, however, but also extends to other British commonwealth countries. Although currently referred to as Queen’s Counsel, the title will be referred to as King’s Counsel when a King reigns.
What does a Queen’s Counsel do?
A QC is a very senior barrister or solicitor advocate who is recognised as an expert and leader in their legal field. A QC will often take the lead on cases, particularly highly complex cases which demand greater experience and expertise.
How do you become Queen’s Counsel?
To apply for Queen’s Counsel, you first need to fill out a highly-detailed application form. Then, if you are successful at this stage, you will be interviewed by members of the independent Selection Panel.
Stage 1 – Application Process
The QC application process has a five-stage competency framework. If you are applying, all five competencies must be “demonstrated to a standard of excellence in the applicant’s professional life”. Your application must be supported with comprehensive evidence of this, which will take several years.
The five competencies are:
- Understanding and using the law:
Applicants must have current, expert knowledge of the law and use this knowledge accurately. They must be eager to learn new areas of law quickly and thoroughly.
- Written and oral advocacy:
Applicants must advance client’s cases to achieve the best possible outcome for the client. They must do this by communicating the case persuasively, writing arguments accurately and accessibly, effectively answering questions from the tribunal, and more.
- Working with others:
Applicants must work collaboratively with all parties, including professional and lay clients, the judge, other representatives, and team members. They must be confident and capable in leading the team before the court or other tribunal. They must also keep clients informed of progress and advise on the best course of action.
Applicants must demonstrate an understanding of diversity and cultural issues. They must respect the cultural needs of others and promote equality of opportunity. They must also confront discrimination and prejudice when observed in others.
Applicants must be honest and straightforward in all professional dealings, including with the court and all parties. They must not mislead or conceal and they must honour professional codes of conduct.
To see the five competencies in further detail, please refer to the Queen’s Counsel Guidance for Applications.
To support your application, you will need to ask several people to act as an assessor. An assessor is someone who can vouch for your work and they must have seen you perform in court. Your assessor should be able to provide detailed evidence which satisfies the competencies. Assessors can include:
- Fellow advocates
- Professional clients
Stage 2 – Interview
If your QC application is approved, you will be invited to interview. The interview takes approximately 45 minutes and takes place with members of the independent Selection Panel. The Selection Panel is chaired by a lay member and is comprised of:
- A retired senior judge
- Senior barristers
- Senior solicitors
- Lay members
The interviewers will ask you questions based on your application and they will also assess you on your oral advocacy.
If you are unsuccessful in either the application stage or interview stage, you can reapply for Queen’s Counsel. However, you will have to begin your application from the start.
The History of Queen’s Counsel
The existence of a position as high as Queen’s Counsel can be dated back to 1597 when Sir Francis Bacon was granted precedence at the bar, before officially being titled King’s Counsel in 1604. However, it wasn’t until the 1800’s that the numbers really began to grow in the King’s Counsel, with the award growing in importance from then onwards.
It wasn’t until 1997 that the position in Queen’s Counsel was open to solicitors as well as barristers. However, it has now been updated to recognise legal talent as a whole, now including solicitor advocates too. Queen’s Counsel also welcomes minorities in any form, and also places an importance in inspiring women to apply. For example, in 2020, 56% of female applicants were appointed QC.
Queen’s Counsel is still seen as an award of excellence for lawyers, and those appointed are done so based on both competence and merit.
If you have been awarded QC status, you are given three formal privileges:
- Uniform: QCs wear a distinctive uniform in the court room featuring a short wig, silk gown, wing collar and bands.
- Formal right to address the court with preference: The judiciary gives QCs the formal right to address the court with preference to any other advocates, although this no longer has real practical significance.
- Position in court: QCs are entitled to sit in the front row of the court room. Although this no longer has any real benefits, it is still seen as an act of professional etiquette.
St Pauls Chambers Queen’s Counsel Barristers
Many of the barristers at St Pauls have been appointed to Queen’s Counsel, including the following: