A Queen’s Counsel (QC) is a senior barrister or solicitor advocate that has been chosen to serve as counsel to the British Crown. A QC barrister is appointed by the Queen on the recommendation of the UK Lord Chancellor, and in recognition for their excellence in advocacy. Queen’s Counsel barristers (or King’s Counsel when a monarch is male) are often viewed as leaders in the field of law.
The Queen appoints QC barristers annually. Traditionally the appointment of QCs was restricted to barristers, but the system was changed in 1996 to accommodate solicitors. To become a QC is considered a prestigious honour.
The first Queen’s Counsel barrister was appointed by Queen Elizabeth I in 1597 to Sir Francis Bacon. By the late 20th century, formal privileges had been established:
Uniform: a short wig, wing collar, and bands and a silk gown. This has led to the informal term of a QC’s appointment as ‘taking silk’.
Formal right to address the court with preference: This, however, no longer has any practical significance.
Position within Court: QCs were also entitled to sit in the front row. This is no longer an advantage, just professional etiquette.
During this time, a QC also had exemption rights from the ‘cab-rank rule’. For junior barristers, this rule meant that they could not turn down legally aided cases and work for private instructions, which were generally more lucrative.
A Queen’s Counsel barrister generally takes the lead on more complex legal cases that demand a higher level of legal experience and expertise. Sometimes a QC barrister will need to instruct a team of advocates for a case. Being a Queen’s Counsel is not limited to the UK, it extends to countries that are members of the commonwealth.
A barrister and QC are both barristers. However, a QC barrister is more senior and is the highest level of the barrister profession. A QC is also appointed by invitation from the Queen following a rigorous application process. Plus, QCs tend to have a large number of cases under their belt compared to barristers.
You have to apply to become a Queen’s Counsel Barrister. The application process is very extensive, but if it is successful, you will be interviewed by members of an independent selection panel.
The application process to become a Queen’s Counsel barrister features a five-stage competency framework. You will need to demonstrate all five competencies in line with a standard of excellence demonstrated in your working and personal life. You will need to submit comprehensive supporting evidence of meeting these standards, which is why your application could take 3 – 5 years.
The five competencies you will need to demonstrate are:
Understanding and using the law. You must show that your knowledge of the law is up to date and that you know how to use this knowledge accurately. Equally, you must show willingness to learn new areas of law quickly and in-depth.
Written and oral advocacy. You must be able to demonstrate high level written and oral advocacy skills that show you can advance client cases to achieve the best possible outcome. You will need to show that you can communicate persuasively, and produce written arguments accurately and accessibly, effectively answering questions from a Court or tribunal
Teamwork. You must be able to work collaboratively with others, including professionals, clients, judges, other representatives and team members. You will need to demonstrate that you are confident and capable of leading a team before a Court or tribunal. You must also keep clients up to date on progress and advise on a best course of action.
Understanding of diversity and cultural issues. You will need to demonstrate a good grasp of cultural and diversity issues, and show that you can respect the cultural needs of others and promote equality and opportunity. You must confront discrimiantion and prejudice, in all its forms, if you observe it in others.
Integrity. You must be honest and maintain professional standards at all times in a professional capacity – including in Court and towards other parties. You must not mislead or withhold information and adhere to professional codes of conduct.
To support your application, you will need the help of several people to act as an assessor. An assessor is someone who can vouch for your work and has witnessed you performing in Court. Your assessor will need to be able to provide comprehensive evidence that satisfies the five key competencies. An assessor can be:
If your application to become a Queen’s Counsel barrister is successful, you will be invited to attend an interview. The interview is with members of an independent selection panel – usually 10 people – and takes approximately 45 minutes. The panel is chaired by a lay member and is comprised of:
You will be asked questions about your application and your oral advocacy will also be assessed.
If you are successful at your interview, you will be recommended to the Lord Chancellor for a QC barrister role by the panel. The Chancellor will then confirm your appointment.
If you are unsuccessful at the interview stage, you will receive detailed feedback and you can reapply again in the future.
Based on their experience and legal expertise, Queen’s Counsel barristers can charge much higher fees than most other legal professionals. A top Queen’s Counsel barrister’s annual salary can easily exceed £1 million. However, the salary of a QC is often determined by the area of law in which they specialise and the years of experience they have.
For example, QCs in tax and commercial law with 10 – 15 years of experience can earn more than £2 million per year. Meanwhile, criminal law QCs with less than five years of experience can earn anywhere between £200,000 and £425,000 per year.
Learn more about the salaries of barristers and solicitors in our guide.
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