Judge and jury for a day

What do solicitors think of the QC system? We get some forthright quotes from lawyers at the front line

While the 500 junior barristers who applied for the 1998 silks list will be celebrating or commiserating this week, their solicitor colleagues are likely to give an indifferent shrug.

In the firms of England and Wales, the silk system engenders antagonism and apathy but very little enthusiastic support for its retention.

With tongues loosened by the promise of confidentiality, 50 solicitors from large city practices and small regional firms have let fly, voicing their frustration with a system that the majority of practitioners say offers them nothing.

“I think it sucks, it's a joke,” thunders one solicitor.

“In some senses the system is a historical anachronism but it does serve to denote seniority,” is all the enthusiasm another could muster.

What annoys solicitors the most about the silk system is the secrecy that surrounds it.

“It's appalling that it is done by confidential report,” says one regional solicitor. “How individuals are chosen is very unscientific.”

One female solicitor comments: “There are problems with the system in that there are people with agendas who are picking people they like.”

And a partner at one big City firm said: “One occasionally gets a glimpse of how these things work. If you were an oppressed minority you would be worried.”

Solicitors on the ground have little input in the silks list. When they do, it is often passed through the Law Society and it is often haphazard.

One year the list ended up in the hands of a high street solicitor who knew four of the hundreds of names on the list.

Solicitors' concerns run deeper than just secrecy, however. “There is a tendency for certain barristers, fearful of offending influential judges, not to attack the case with the same ferocity as they otherwise would,” comments one.

Certainly, in conducting the interviews for this feature, we got the distinct impression that solicitors were enjoying the opportunity to play judge and jury for a change.

They ask if there is anything intrinsically wrong with making the silks application list available publicly and inviting comments.

Yet at least one solicitor questions whether they have any real right to be consulted: “We have partners, they have QCs. We don't consult clients to who they think should be made partners.”

Naturally, not all of the objections to the QC system are on strictly moral or ethical grounds. Solicitors are often annoyed that they lose the services of their favoured juniors when they take silk.

“Once they turn the corner they cut off the greater proportion of cases that they would have on a day-to-day basis,” says one.

Says another: “I do sometimes wonder if the Bar welcomes it. Juniors can become less busy as silks.”

Yet while one solicitor says the silks system brings “style and authority to the profession”, the majority claim that behind the glitz there is little of any real commercial substance to justify its continued existence.