A SHARP decline in applications for silk has prompted speculation that a shortage of work for QCs is preventing successful juniors from putting their names forward.
But opinion is divided on the causes of the drop in QC hopefuls which has brought a historic year-on-year increase in applications to an abrupt halt.
Some attribute the decline in applicants from 539 in 1994 to 492 this year to a greater awareness among candidates of the criteria used by the Lord Chancellor for the awarding of silk which has weeded out speculative applications.
Meanwhile, the continued reluctance of women barristers and those from an ethnic minority background to apply for silk has renewed calls for more candidates to step forward.
Robin de Wilde QC, a campaigner for a more open silk appointment system since he was awarded silk in 1993, believes the "economic realities" of becoming a QC are putting people off applying.
"Not all silks are making a living and people are worried about what the future is going to be," he says.
Alison Ball QC, joint head of chambers at the family set One Garden Court, is one of the eight women to be awarded silk this year.
She says she is "absolutely delighted" to have been chosen but adds she thought hard about making her first application.
Ball agrees uncertainty over the amount of silk work available will have had an impact on the number of applicants this year, especially in those fields which cannot rely on deep corporate coffers.
And while confident there is enough senior work to go around in her chambers she is now contemplating a change in the nature of her work which may involve having to travel long distances for higher profile family cases such as those involving child abuse.
She even goes so far as to question a system with which she believes many other barristers are uncomfortable "in their heart of hearts".
"I'm not sure whether we need to go through this sort of hullabaloo, it seems archaic."
The Lord Chancellor's Department would not speculate on the reasons for the drop in applications. A spokesman for the department says it is premature to talk about trends.
Michael Kalisher QC, who chaired the recent Bar Council Working Party on appointment of Queen's Counsel, is convinced obtaining silk is still the ambition of the vast majority of the profession although he accepts it might not be appropriate for everyone.
"My own view is that the very helpful guidance notes which were issued to intending applicants for the first time this year and which explained the sort of criteria and standing that's expected discouraged premature and inappropriate applications," he says.
Of the 492 applicants just 42 were woman and only eight from ethnic minority backgrounds. Kalisher urges barristers from this under-represented pool of talent to apply.
Barbara Hewson, vice chair elect of the Association of Women Barristers, believes female barristers whose earnings have been inhibited by childcare duties may be holding back from applying because they wrongly believe earnings to be the key to success.
"The present regime is understanding of the difficulties women face, but if they don't put their names forward they're not going to be considered."