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The Lord Chancellor stands accused of attempting to dilute the upper echelons of the Bar by appointing more silks than ever before, despite a marked reduction in the number of applications.
Several longstanding silks commented that the Lord Chancellor's aim is to counter the impression that the QCs form an exclusive club. This follows the Office of Fair Trading's allegations that the silk system is anti-competitive.
Lord Irvine received 394 silk applications in the latest round, and appointed 121. Last year, 429 applied and 113 were appointed. Prior to last year, an average of 14 per cent of applicants were successful. This increased to 26.3 per cent in 2002 and to 30.7 per cent this year.
One silk said: "Some people who've tried about 12 times and have written themselves off managed to get silk this year. Over time, appointing more silks will reduce the exclusivity of the silk system, which will make it less easy to attack this group of people."
An LCD spokesman said: "QCs are decided on the basis of published criteria. Its ideas are based on merit."
The reduction of applications this year was attributed in part to the cost of applying for silk. Until three years ago it was free, but it now costs around £1,000.
This year, less emphasis appears to have been placed on granting silk to commercial barristers, reflected in the fact that there is a greater spread of silk awards among different practice areas. Fewer awards went to magic circle sets, with Essex Court getting the most with four. 3 Verulam Buildings had another good year, with three silks against four last year.
The larger chancery sets did not fare well, with Maitland receiving none and Wilberforce, Serle Court and 3-4 South Square getting only one each. Martin Mann QC's increasingly noteworthy set 24 Old Buildings got two silks, in a year which saw its practice increasingly diversifying from trust work into the lucrative sectors of aviation and travel.
There was more balance in the number of silks awarded to criminal barristers after a glut in 2001 followed by a marked reduction last year, when commercial practitioners were heavily favoured. This year, criminal sets 9 Bedford Row, 36 Bedford Row, Hollis Whiteman Chambers, Red Lion Court and 3 Raymond Buildings, which also does civil work, each got two or more.
Nine women were awarded silk, representing just under a quarter of female applicants against 30.7 per cent success for all applicants. Seven ethnic minorities were given silk out of 23 applications while just one out of 10 solicitors who applied was successful.
The average income for successful applicants has doubled in the past three years, increasing from £150,667 in 2001 to £309,667 in the most recent financial year. During this period, top fees for successful applicants totalled £684,667, against £566,000 for top earners among those denied silk. The lowest income recorded for a successful applicant was £74,667.