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Leading black lawyers rallied around the beleaguered silks system last week and argued that the rank of Queen's Counsel should be retained in the public interest as a way of promoting a diverse profession.
"The last Lord Chancellor told us, 'Don't be shy, apply'," said Courtenay Griffiths QC, chairman of the bar's public affairs committee. "As a result, a cohort of ethnic minority barristers are reaching the stage when they could apply to become silks or judges. And suddenly the Government is not just suggesting moving the goalposts, it wants to remove them altogether."
Together with two other QCs - Linda Dobbs, chairwoman of the Criminal Bar Association, and Oba Nsugbe - Griffiths wrote to The Times complaining that the "hopes of a rising cohort of black and Asian practitioners would be dashed at a stroke by the abolition of silk, and a huge opportunity to promote diversity in the legal profession and on the bench would be missed".
The Bar Council also argued that the public interest would be harmed if the Government abolished QCs. The submission featured a review of international systems of appointing senior counsel published to date, as well as an attack on "the weaknesses" in the Office of Fair Trading's analysis of the silks system. "The case that the award of silk creates distortions of competition- is at present based on conjecture, unsupported by any hard evidence," it argued.
"Our paper warns that a rising cohort of black and Asian barristers, now ready to take silk, have had their hopes dashed by the Government suspending the silk round when it previously urged them to apply," Bar Chairman Matthias Kelly QC said. "This about-turn, if not reversed, will harm all our efforts to promote diversity in the law and the judiciary and will diminish the confidence of all our communities in the legal system."
However, there was little comfort for the bar from the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC), which in its submission, also published last week, called for the title to be scrapped as it was "tainted by subjectivity and the inadequate methods of the current appointment process". The watchdog also observed that only 11 per cent of QCs were women and only 4 per cent were appointed from an ethnic minority background.
"There was a perception amongst consultees that applicants needed to fit a 'silk mould' and conform to expectations as to appearance, accent, dress, education or social background or other factors beyond the stated criteria," the report said. However, the EOC did conclude that a quality mark, if "objectively deserved, monitored, awarded on merit via a process transparent which is non-discriminatory", would be helpful.