Honorary Queen’s Counsel

When the list of new Queen’s Counsel was announced this week, it was accompanied by a list of eight new Honorary Queen’s Counsel. This is a larger number than in recent years (when it has ranged between five and seven), and I thought it might be of interest to say something about this honour for the benefit of those who are not familiar with the system.

For many years the Lord Chancellor of the day followed a practice of making appointments of Queen’s Counsel honoris causa, often awarding the honour to academic scholars who had made a contribution to the law outside the narrow world of academia[1]. The award is made to lawyers

“who have made a major contribution to the law of England and Wales outside practice in the courts.”

I remember that when I was appointed silk in 1981, the Permanent Secretary in the Lord Chancellor’s Department, Sir Wilfred Bourne, was made an honorary QC, and I invited him to join us in what was his old chambers for a buffet lunch[2] before we both crossed the road in order to make our bows in the Court of the Lord Chief Justice and elsewhere.[3]

Under the former practice the Lord Chancellor’s Department did not, so far as I know, formally invite nominations, but the existence of the honour was known, and if his senior civil servants received a suggested name (or thought of one themselves) they would then make discreet inquiries of those who might be able to tell them something about the candidate and his/her suitability for the honour.   I used to receive these approaches from time to time, particularly during and after my period of service as Chairman of the Law Commission: my recommendations were not always accepted.

Until 2003 the Lord Chancellor’s Department (now, in an expanded form, the Ministry of Justice) was also responsible for preparing for the Lord Chancellor the annual list of practising QCs.[4] These arrangements were slightly more open, in the sense that applicants for silk were invited to apply each year by a pre-announced date.  They had to complete an application form, in which they would say something about their practice and their experience and would name two judicial referees who had seen them in court.    A comparatively small fee was also required.   Soon after I was appointed to silk in 1981, I took part each year in the senior civil servants’ private consultation processes as a senior representative of the London Common Law Bar Association, when a few of us would be asked to express our views (in confidence) on the merits of those applicants who said they were practising in that particular field.

In 2003 the arrangements for appointing silks were suspended.  This move followed a good deal of dissatisfaction, particularly from solicitors, about their cosy nature.   However, after an 18-month consultation process the Lord Chancellor was persuaded to start appointing silks again.  This time, however, there was to be a self-financing selection process conducted by an independent multi-disciplinary panel in a much more open way than before.  The cost of applications inevitably soared, but a large number of applicants have still been willing to try their luck even though the application process is both more demanding and more expensive.  It was through this process that the names of 107 new practising QCs was announced this week, being barristers and solicitors who had

“demonstrated their excellence as advocates in practice.”

The task of appointing honorary silks was not, however, delegated to the new panel, but in this case, too, the process is much more open. A public invitation for nominations is made each year, when the following guidance is given:

  • “The award is open only to qualified lawyers and to legal academics. However, although the substantive QC rank can be awarded only to lawyers with rights of audience in the higher courts, the honorary rank is not so limited. It is available to any practising lawyer, whether in private practice, working as an employed lawyer, or in public service. ‘Public service’ includes any public-sector organisation – national government, local government, or other public bodies such as the CPS or the NHS – and also lawyers working in bodies such as charities or not-for-profit agencies.

  • Honorary silk is awarded to lawyers and legal academics who have made a major contribution to the law of England and Wales outside practice in the courts, which has not been recognised through other forms of honours[5].

  • ‘Major contribution to the law of England and Wales’ can be interpreted as widely as you like. It means not only contributions to the development of the law, but also to people’s understanding of it, their ability to make use of it, and its promotion. This can potentially cover a wide range of activities so, while it is difficult to give a definitive list we would like to make it clear that we are happy to consider accomplishments in any area.

  • ‘Outside practice in the courts’ will generally mean that the award is made for an achievement other than a person’s normal practice as a lawyer or academic, which also brings with it a significant degree of public benefit. However, there is no definite boundary to this – for instance, the development of pro bono work is usually closely associated with practice. We would also like to recognise particular distinction in both practice and academic law.”

Of this year’s list of eight honorary silks, I know three very well, and I will now say something about each of them (after quoting their official citation) to show just how widely these awards may extend. They are:

Professor Sara Chandler 

Sara “is a solicitor specialising in landlord and tenant law and is also Visiting Professor in Clinical Legal Education at London South Bank University. She has been recommended for her work on pro bono and human rights. Professor Chandler has been instrumental in developing the concept of a clinical legal education, such that students give pro-bono advice to the public, under the guidance of qualified lawyers. In her career she has worked at a number of Law Centres and has made a major contribution to the voluntary sector through the Law Centres Federation and Network, where she was an Executive Committee member for a number of years from 1999. She has represented solicitors in the voluntary sector since 2002 on the Council of the Law Society of England & Wales. As a result she is a trustee of four legal charities, including the Access to Justice Foundation. She has also made a major contribution in the field of human rights and was the winner of the LUKAS Human Rights Worker of the Year Award in May 2014. She is the author of numerous articles and conference papers. She has held a variety of positions in boards and committees of the Law Society from 1992 to the present date.”

What this does not mention is all the work she does in organising what is called a large Caravana of international lawyers and judges who go to Colombia every two years to meet human rights lawyers and defenders, victims of human rights violations and state officials, and to make recommendations to the Colombian authorities aimed at improving local practice.  Until quite recently Sara was Chair of the Law Society’s Human Rights Committee, and I got to know her well when we were both serving on the Lawyers’ Advisory Group of Peace Brigades International (UK).

Joshua Rozenberg 

Joshua “is a non-practising solicitor. He has been recommended for his work as the pre-eminent legal analyst of modern times. He is an honorary bencher of Gray’s Inn, best known as a leading legal journalist and commentator. After taking a degree in law, he became the BBC’s first legal correspondent. He then joined the Daily Telegraph and is now a freelance writer and broadcaster, contributing to a range of outlets. He presents Law in Action on Radio 4 and his work includes four published books.”

To anyone with any knowledge of the English legal scene Joshua needs no introduction. He is easily the best known legal commentator in the news media today, and is very widely trusted for the quality and accuracy of his work by judges, lawyers and campaigners alike. I have known him for many years. In March 2014 he accompanied me for two days on one of my frequent visits to Albania, when he sat in with me throughout the wide spectrum of meetings I had with Albanian ministers, senior civil servants, judges, lawyers, judicial trainees and members of the international legal community in Tirana. He later wrote an article about the visit.

Professor Ian Scott 

Ian “qualified as a solicitor and a barrister in Victoria, Australia, but moved to the UK in the 1960s and joined the academic staff of the Faculty of Law at the University of Birmingham. He has been recommended particularly for his work editing the Civil Procedure Rules. Throughout his career he has maintained an interest in civil procedure and judicial administration, and has contributed significantly to the English and Welsh legal system through writing, lecturing and Government committee work. Over the last 25 years Professor Scott has contributed greatly to the reform and development of Civil Procedure in England and Wales. He was first editor of the Civil Justice Quarterly (from 1979 to 2006), and in 2007 became General Editor of the White Book, having been a member of the editorial team since 1989. For 25 years he wrote and edited Supreme Court Practice News and more recently Civil Procedure News, compiling at least ten issues every year.”

I have known Ian for 30 years since he served as an outspoken member of the Lord Chancellor’s Civil Justice Review Body which met off and on for four years in an effort to persuade the Government to modernise civil justice practice and to invest in information technology to assist judges in the civil courts[6]. Later I encountered him at regular meetings of the editorial board when I became Editor in Chief of the White Book (the Bible of Civil Court Practice in England and Wales) to which Ian made a quite massive contribution for many years, most recently as its General Editor.  And all this in addition to writing learned articles on different aspects of civil procedure for over a quarter of a century.


I have picked out these three for special mention only because I know them all and because they demonstrate quite vividly the different types of contribution that may now qualify for this award. The other five honorands this year, Professor Robert Blackburn, Professor Adrian Briggs, Professor Jonathan Harris, Anne-Marie Hutchinson OBE and Professor Clive Walker, all of whom I know by reputation, are no less worthy of the honour.

Although the mainstream system of appointing QCs is still under fire from some quarters, I don’t think the same criticism is attached to the arrangements for the award of honorary silk, a distinction which is greatly coveted and which does great honour to those who receive it.



[1] Academic Law Commissioners, for example.

[2] It was touching that Sir Melford Stevenson, the former Head of Chambers who was becoming quite blind in his retirement from the Bench, joined us for lunch and for the ceremony in court.

[3] In an Obituary Notice, after a reference to his glittering academic career, it was said of him: “[B]ut his choice of common-law chambers did not work out as well as might have been expected; and Melford Stevenson later remarked that sending Wilfrid Bourne to do a case in the county court was like using a razor to cut linoleum. With his gifts, Bourne might have succeeded brilliantly at the Chancery Bar; but he lacked enthusiasm for the rough-and-tumble of the lower reaches of common-law practice, and failed to attract work from solicitors who, in that milieu, were probably looking for other qualities. So in 1956, after eight years in chambers (and at a time when the Bar as a whole was in a somewhat depressed state), he entered the Lord Chancellor’s Office at the age of 34 as one of the small group of lawyers working close to the Lord Chancellor in the House of Lords, where he soon became Private Secretary to the Earl of Kilmuir.” I describe the paucity of work in the 1950s in the second paragraph of my first blog on Law and Practice in the 1960s.

[4] By tradition the announcement was made on Maundy Thursday (the Thursday immediately before Easter) each year, although this tradition apparently started in the reign of the present Queen. It has now been abandoned.

[5] This rule seems to be honoured more in the breach than the observance, because a lot of recent honorary QCs have previously received more conventional honours from the Queen for outstanding service in some legal arena or other.

[6] I remember a quite stormy meeting Ian convened at Birmingham University in 1985 when the opposing factions in the personal injuries litigation industry demonstrated, by no means for the last time in those days, their antagonism to change and their affection for current practices, however long drawn out and expensive they might be on occasion.

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