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Taking silk – what’s a QC?

Last week we heard that twelve family lawyers had “taken silk” or in other parlance been appointed as Queen’s Counsel, or QC for short. So we thought, as a little side-track from our normal topic, a brief look at what a QC really is, and this business about silk, might be instructive.

We will try to keep the history lesson short!

Queen’s Counsel (or King’s Counsel during the reign of a male monarch) are senior barristers – or, unusually, senior solicitors who are specially qualified to do advocacy in the higher courts. The Queen’s (or King’s) Counsel superseded the Medieval lawyers known as Serjeants at Law, who were order of senior barristers established by the twelfth century king, Henry II (he was the one who had a spot of bother with Thomas Beckett, and who was father of Richard the Lionheart and bad king John). The first Queen’s Counsel was created during the reign of Elizabeth I, but they did not rise to prominence as the most prestigious barrister rank until the nineteenth century.

Recent years saw debate over whether the title should be retained, and it was suggested that the rank might be abolished. However the appointment system was reformed (the much-criticised “secret soundings” of judges were abolished) and the rank of QC retained. These days appointments are made once a year by a nine-member panel, chaired by a lay person, which includes two barristers, two solicitors, a retired judge, and three non-lawyers. In formal terms the appointment is a royal one, but in name only.

So what about silk, and why do we refer to QCs as having taken silk, or just as silks? Well, it is all to do with court dress (which is not always worn – just to confuse matters). When in court dress, a junior barrister wears an open sleeved black gown over a dark suit. A QC will wear a black court coat and waistcoat, or a long-sleeved waistcoat with no court coat, which is styled like 18th-century court dress. Importantly, their gown should (in theory) be made of silk (although some wear other materials these days) and has a flap collar and long closed sleeves (the arm opening is half-way up the sleeve). A barrister in court dress is described as “robed”, one in normal business attire as “unrobed.”

In family cases court dress is rarely worn. Business suits are the norm for barristers, apart from in contested divorce or nullity cases, and hearings before the Court of Appeal or Supreme Court, where court dress is normally worn. You will be far more likely to find formal court dress in the criminal courts.

So, when might you actually want to instruct a QC in your case? These days the award is made based on a proven track record of excellency in advocacy before the courts (both written and oral advocacy). So if your case is very complex you may want the security of knowing your barrister is outstanding in their profession. Many barristers who have been at the bar (i.e. practising) for many years are truly excellent advocates without being QCs, and if you do need counsel to represent you in court, then your solicitor will be able to advise on the most appropriate person to appoint.

If a QC is appointed, you can expect their fees to be considerably higher than non-QCs who are known as junior counsel, even though many of them are far from junior in age or experience!

At this level, many barristers are specialists, either in finance on separation and divorce, or on children cases. Some retain a twin-track specialism and work on both children and finance cases. Some specialise in public law cases, i.e. taking children into care and placing them for adoption. Legal Aid is still available for some public law cases, and in exceptionally complex care cases, it is possible for a QC to be funded by the Legal Aid scheme.

If there is anything else you would like to know about Queen’s Counsel, barristers, or family law generally, then please get in touch with us on 01223 443333.

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