Since Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1952, Queen’s Counsel – usually displayed next to lawyers’ names as a ‘QC’ suffix – has referred to lawyers who have demonstrated exceptional skill in their ability to advocate complex and significant cases in the higher courts of England and Wales. KC applications are considered by a selection committee made up of senior lawyers in annual ‘competitions’, and then successful applicants are appointed the honorific title.
While the status has historically been reserved for barristers who had the exclusive right to advocate in courts across England and Wales, since 1995, with the introduction of higher rights of audience for solicitors, solicitors who qualified for higher rights of audience (also known as solicitor advocates) have been eligible for the title.
The status of Queen’s Counsel that we have come to recognise during the reign of Queen Elizabeth II refers to an honorific title that bestows exclusive rights to wear a silk gown and have precedence over other barristers in court. The title, originally granted upon the direct appointment of the Crown, is now open for application by legal advocates who have practised law for ten years and been recommended by the Lord Chancellor.
Under the reign of the late Queen, the title given to the highest legal advocates across England and Wales was Queen’s Counsel, with the first Queen’s Counsel as we know it today being appointed by Queen Elizabeth I in 1957. However, despite the familiar title, the traditions of the status began under a King, evolving since its introduction into the ‘badge of honour’ we recognise it as today.
In records dated as far back as the 16th century, the title of King’s Counsel was originally reserved for the Attorney General, Solicitor-General and King’s Serjeants who were given the status of King’s Counsel in Ordinary as recognition for their position. It was only in 1603 that the King’s Counsel status shifted from one that exclusively reflected an occupational title to one that could be regarded as vocational calling, when Sir Francis Bacon was granted the title to reflect a right of precedence before the Court.
The right of precedence granted to Bacon became a hallmark of the early King’s Counsel whose members were initially appointed by the monarch of the country to be one of ‘His [Her] Majesty’s Counsel learned in the law’. This enabled the swift resolution of Crown litigation compared with other disputes of the time.
The developing nature of the King’s Counsel meant the gradual decline in the relevance of the formerly more senior titles of King’s Serjeants Attorney General, and Solicitor-General and, by the early 1830’s, King’s Counsel had become the standard of recognition for senior barristers as a reflection of professional seniority, rather than purely denoting the elite position of royal Counsel.
Gradually, the appointment to the King’s/Queen’s Counsel shifted from a vocational calling to a badge of honour and prestige, reflecting the skill and expertise of successful applicants and becoming what we recognise it as today.
Under the automatic effect of the Demise of the Crown Act 1901, section 1, members of the previously titled Queen’s Counsel (QC) have become King’s Counsel (KC) following the Queen’s passing and the beginning of HM King Charles III’s reign as monarch.
A spokeswoman for the Bar Council, which represents all barristers in England and Wales, confirmed in a publication that the change in title was immediate and that “we mark with sorrow and dedication to justice the change of Queen’s Counsel to King’s Counsel.”
The title of King’s Counsel recognises the same status and rights of those appointed and will remain until a reigning Queen returns to the throne – something we are unlikely to see again in the near future, given the throne’s current lineage.
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