AUSTRALIA’S LEGAL profession is unlikely to be affected by the “radical” reforms to the mother country’s 400-year-old system for selecting QCs, according to the president of the peak judicial body in NSW.
The title of Queen’s Counsel has won a temporary reprieve in the UK under plans unveiled recently for reform of the system for marking out an elite cadre of advocates.
The much criticised method of selecting QCs is to be replaced by an accreditation scheme for senior advocates run by that country’s Bar Council and Law Society.
NSW Bar Association president Ian Harrison SC acknowledged that, for England, the change was a significant one, but Australia had already gone through the process of reforming the age-old title.
In NSW the Government appointment of Queen’s Counsel was abolished 10 years ago and replaced by Senior Counsel appointed by the Bar Association, he said.
In the UK, an interim scheme will be run for two or three years while consultations determine the exact nature of the reforms. Meanwhile, the UK Government said it would keep the QC title, but once the new scheme had been finalised the title may be abolished.
Under the accreditation scheme, Silks in the UK will no longer be chosen by the Lord Chancellor after consultations with judges. Additionally, applicants will take the burden of costs from the taxpayer.
While under the old system QCs carry the title for life and receive higher fees from legal aid and prosecution funds, the new system will see them having to undergo revalidation periodically.
NSW Bar Association president Harrison told Lawyers Weekly that NSW had a detailed protocol already, “which is the checklist against which applications for Silk are examined, and it’s working well”.
The present Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer told BBC Radio 4’s World At One that assessments were being made about the market overall and that the QC system was internationally recognised as a benchmark for quality and brought a lot of money into the country.
“If those researches revealed there was some other system, then that might involve abolishing the QC system at that stage, but I cannot justify doing it at this stage.”
Harrison said he supported retaining the appointment of Senior Counsel. “The notion of SC [and QC] is an important element to retain. It was once thought by the ACCC to be anti-competitive. But now they appreciate this is not the case,” Harrison said.
“The title SC [or QC] highlights barristers in their particular fields. This is helpful to the court,” Harrison said.
It was important that people had access to specialists and this title highlighted the availability of specialist advocates in particular, he said.
The chairman of the Bar of England and Wales, Stephen Irwin QC, said the reform plans would help the prospects of rising advocates, especially those from ethnic minorities.
“This is … good news for the legal system since striving to attain the rank of QC is something which underpins high ethical standards, and high quality in the law,” Irwin said.
“The QC brand generates considerable invisible earnings for our professional services sector, creating jobs and underpinning this country as a good jurisdiction in which to do law in a global economy.”
Barristers want to see a fair system, which selects the best advocates from every social and ethnic background, Irwin said.
Twenty per cent of new entrants to the Bar were from ethnic minorities, he said. “The hopes of a rising cohort of non-white advocates, who want to go on to become QCs, can be realised.
“We fully support the approach which means the rank can be removed if someone — usually as a result of a justified complaint — is found to fall below the high standards that Silk implies,” Irwin said.