Honorary QCs: clarity before parity

Every year in Westminster Hall a small group of honorary QCs line up to get an award alongside the real ones.

Except no one knows how they got there; we don’t know who nominated them and we don’t know who’s on the selection panel. They don’t know, either. What’s more, the criteria can be most generously described as vague, citing a major contribution to the law of England and Wales outside practice in the courts, which allows a
wide interpretation.

It would seem axiomatic that if you’re going to give someone a public honour, the process should be transparent. However, despite repeated questions to the Ministry of Justice, including an FOI request, the process is essentially a tarted-up version of the secret soundings system that was abolished a decade ago for substantive silks.

Now, some might argue that the honorary QC is just a colourful British tradition that doesn’t need an overhaul; a bit like the class system, say. We would disagree. For a start, it is a state-sanctioned award. The timing of the announcement – the same time as the silks announcement and the ceremony – gives it parity with the substantive silks.

The mysterious committee is being spectacularly lazy in its choices. Not only does it seem to be heavily reliant on a list of CBE recipients, but only seven women out of 46 have made the cut in 12 years. It wouldn’t have been hard to find two female academics a year.

It’s great that Geoffrey Bindman and Stephen Grosz have got the nod, but two nominees from Bindmans looks as if the committee got to ’B’ and then got bored. Guy Beringer, formerly of A&O, and Stuart Popham, formerly of Clifford Chance, were deeply unimaginative selections. Both ended their legal careers heading magic circle machines that were already dominant in corporate life. (That said, no one would begrudge the honour given to Clyde & Co’s Michael Payton, who has personally built one of the most successful firms in the City.)

But until this process is made transparent, the system just serves to shore up the Establishment. Memo to the MoJ: match your acts to your rhetoric.