Smoothing the way to silk

Solicitor advocates are pressing their case for becoming QCs. Sharon Wallach reports
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The barrister-solicitor divide is likely to blur further in the aut-umn if solicitor advocates become eligible for Queen's Counsel. Paul Hampton, the chairman of the Solicitors' Association of High Court Advocates, said at the group's first annual meeting that he believed the Lord Chancellor would stand by his commitment to allow solicitors to apply for silk.

A spokeswoman at the Lord Chancellor's Department says that, in principle, the Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay, sees no reason why solicitors should not apply, but adds that there are doubts about whether solicitor advocates have sufficient experience. The requirement for silk is a minimum of 10 years' advocacy experience. It is only in the past year that solicitors have been granted the right to appear as advocates in the higher courts, so as things stand at the moment, this could mean that the only solicitor advocates eligible for silk are former barristers or those with relevant experience in another common law jurisdiction such as Australia or New Zealand.

Just how the 10-year period is to be measured is one of the points of "without prejudice" discussions currently under way between the LCD and the Law Society, according to the society's head of communications, Walter Merricks. Under the 1990 Courts and Legal Services Act, a solicitor granted rights of audience is deemed to have held them since his date of admission to the profession.

"We have asked the Lord Chancellor how he intends to apply the rule," Mr Merricks says. "On the one hand it is important to realise that rights of audience are back-dated. But, if silk is considered a mark of distinction in advocacy, it would be surprising if it were conferred on someone who has exercised the right of advocacy for only six months."

The society has asked for assurances from the LCD about criteria for eligibility that would allow equal and fair consideration. "Without this, there would not be much point in solicitors applying," Mr Merricks says.

He points to the difference between technical eligibility and the likelihood of appointment. "We say that it is important to make the distinction. Solicitors should make their own judgements whether they have the relevant experience."

Paul Hampton hopes that in the next round of QC appointments this autumn, the Lord Chancellor will include solicitor advocates in the competition. "As to how long before a solicitor gets a QC, it is impossible to say." He believes that the Lord Chancellor will continue to appoint on merit. "He will not be tempted down any political road. He won't want to dilute the quality of silk."

Currently, 275 solicitors have High Court certificates, with another 100 or so applications in the pipeline.

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