A Silk lawyer is the colloquial name given to a Queen’s Counsel (QC), a senior barrister (in England) or advocate (in Scotland) who is selected by an independent panel committee due to their knowledge, experience and skill.
QCs are referred to as silk lawyers as they wear silk gowns and the process of becoming a silk lawyer is also referred to as ‘taking silk.’ Junior barristers, on the other hand, wear wool gowns in court, showing how silk gowns are used to distinguish different rankings of barristers in a courtroom. QCs also have the honour of sitting within the bar during a court proceeding.
Appointed by the Queen as “one of Her Majesty’s counsel learned in the law,” the honorary title is recognised in courts across the United Kingdom and in some Commonwealth countries such as Australia, Canada and New Zealand. While Commonwealth countries like Sri Lanka and Nigeria have abolished the practice, others have adapted it to Senior Counsel or Senior Advocate to symbolise the same status and ranking as a QC.
The practice dates back to the late 1500s and early 1600s with the appointment of Sir Francis Bacon. The first woman to be appointed King’s Counsel was Helen Kinnear, over 300 years after the practice was introduced in 1934.
During the reign of a male sovereign, Queen’s Counsel are instead referred to as King’s Counsel (KC). More recently, solicitors in England have also been appointed Queen’s Counsel.
Silk lawyers are appointed more often on the basis of merit rather than a certain number of years of experience. However, most QCs have between ten to fifteen years of experience. Due to their status and skill, Queen’s Counsel lawyers charge high fees and are normally brought in to consult on different cases. They are also assisted by another barrister, referred to as their ‘junior’ barrister.
Applications for Queen’s Counsel open annual and interested lawyers must complete a form. Successfully candidates receive letters patent issued by Her Majesty the Queen.
Words: Siobhan Ali
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