There is renewed hope for the long-term future of the QC – and not just because The Lawyer has assumed the role of Lord Chancellor to offer its own annual quality mark, the TLC.
There is a credible rumour that the bar will be afforded a new, reformed silk system, but we were just too impatient to wait for any announcement that might be pending from the Department of Constitutional Affairs.
While the abolitionists (of whom there are many) speak fervently about the arbitrary, anachronistic nature of the system, look at the alternative. It would be impossible to abolish QCs retrospectively. So if you thought those in possession of the status symbol are already able to charge inflated fees, then imagine a world without a silks system. With nothing left to distinguish between the 13,000-odd barristers at the bar and little for them to aspire to, those already in possession of those two little letters could really distort the market. The £3,000 hourly rates charged by Lord Grabiner – formerly a QC – could come to be seen as a veritable bargain.
So, in a lighthearted bid to provide the bar with some much-needed TLC, we have instituted our own quality mark: The Lawyer Counsel (TLC). In fact, a significant majority of the 200-odd solicitors, in-house counsel, heads of chambers, members of the judiciary and senior barristers we canvassed, do want to see some sort of quality mark for the bar. The result of this research is The Lawyer Counsel 2004: 50 barristers the market considers deserving of elite status.
Our first alternative silks list attempts to reinvigorate a system devalued by the flooding of the market in 2002-03, when there were 234 new QCs compared with an average of 71 between 1994-2001. As a result several deserving counsel have missed out this time round – but please blame the previous Lord Chancellor, not us. Only three criminal barristers make the list. Again, this was deliberate. After all, what price a criminal silk these days? Although the criminal bar continues to produce some fine advocates, with rates as low as £48 an hour counsel are leaving the profession in their droves.
Women barristers perform well. Of 160 nominations, 19 per cent were women; and of the final 50, 24 per cent are women, compared with just 7.4 per cent of the 2003 awards.
Essex Court emerged as the best-performing set. Eight individuals received nominations, scotching any fears that, come the eventual retirement of head of chambers Gordon Pollock QC, the set will founder.
If a new quality mark does make an appearance, then the first 50 TLCs get our vote.