Solicitors now get the opportunity to take silk

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Solicitors as well as barristers are to be given the chance to "take silk" for the first time, it was announced yesterday.

The Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, said he would invite applications this autumn from suitably qualified solicitors for appointment as Queen's Counsel next year. The move follows discussions between the Lord Chancellor, the Bar and the Law Society.

For the successful candidate, gaining the title Queen's Counsel brings with it a significant increase in professional prestige and, usually, higher fees.

To be eligible, solicitors must hold full rights of audience in the higher courts in England and Wales. Solicitors have been able to obtain rights of audience to represent their clients in the higher civil and criminal courts the Crown Courts, the High Court, the Court of Appeal and the House of Lords since 1994.

They have to pass training courses and examinations in advocacy set up by the Law Society to gain the rights, and at present there are around 275 solicitors who hold them. Previously solicitors had been restricted to representing clients in the magistrates' courts.

It is thought few solicitors, if any, will be considered to have sufficient advocacy experience to be serious contenders for appointment as QCs in the immediate future. Legal sources suggested candidates would need at least five years' experience in the higher courts before they would stand a real chance of success.

Nevertheless, applications for appointment as QCs will be invited in September, for possible appointment in April 1996.

Russell Wallman, head of the Law Society's professional policy team, welcomed the move, but added: "The Law Society is reviewing its policy towards the QC system generally as it leads to higher fees than necessary. "However, while the system continues, it is important that solicitor advocates and barrister advocates are considered on equal terms when they apply to become a QC."

The Bar Council welcomed the decision as "rational and the right one" following the decision to give solicitors access to the higher courts.