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Uncertainty over the new QC selection process has led to a lower than expected number of applications, with just 440 junior barristers and solicitor-advocates putting themselves forward.
The QC Applications Secretariat released the figures last week following the application closing date of 14 September. The news prompted surprise in the profession, with many involved saying they had expected as many as 1,500 applicants due to the two-year hiatus in appointing new silks, despite the £1,800 application fee.
Hundreds of judges, barristers and solicitors across the country are now waiting to hear if they will have to supply references for QC candidates. Each prospective silk had to submit a list of 12 judges, six fellow advocates and six clients as part of the application.
For each candidate, four referees will be interviewed and seven will have to complete written questionnaires. The applicants will choose one judge, one colleague and one client from their list of referees and the selection panel will pick the rest. David Watts, head of the QC Secretariat, said the referees will be asked to compare the candidate to the competency framework attached to the selection process.
As first revealed exclusively by The Lawyer in February 2005, this framework involves seven key competencies: integrity; understanding and using the law; analysing case material to develop arguments; persuading and communicating arguments; responding to unfolding cases; working with the client; and working in a team.
Candidates have already had to assess themselves according to these competencies. One senior clerk with many years' experience of helping junior barristers apply for silk said that completing the application had been particularly difficult this year because the process is so new.
"We're completely in the dark about the process," the clerk said. "There's nothing to judge it against."
At this stage it is unclear how many solicitors applied for silk, although the process was designed to attract more non-barrister candidates. Watts said he would be able to give more information in time.
While many connected to the process said the low number of applicants came as a surprise, some thought it was a good thing. A senior clerk said: "More candidates could have caused the fledgling system to grind to a halt."
Watts said he was currently discussing the next steps of the process with the nine-strong selection panel, chaired by Sir Duncan Nichol, in order to establish a "sensible timetable".
He claimed that the number of applicants did not surprise him, saying: "This is broadly in line with the planning assumption that we were using when the office was set up."