Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

Queen's Counsel

Queen's Counsel (QCs), during the reign of a male Sovereign known as King's Counsel (KCs), are barristers appointed by patent to be one of "Her Majesty's Counsel learned in the law." They do not constitute a separate order or degree of lawyers. But whilst utter barristers are called to the Bar by their inn of court, the Queen's Counsel are called by the Court within the Bar. They are thus more than merely a professional rank, as their status is conferred by the Crown and recognised by the courts.

Queen's Counsel have the privilege of sitting within the Bar of court, and wear silk gowns of a special design (hence the informal title Silks). See Court dress


The Attorney-General, Solicitor-General, and King's Serjeants were King's Counsel in Ordinary. The first Queen's Counsel "Extraordinary" was Sir Francis Bacon, who was given a patent giving him precedence at the Bar in 1597, and formally styled King's Counsel in 1603 (W. S. Holdsworth, History of English Law (1938) vi 473-4; Patent Rolls, 2 Jac I p 12 m 15).

The obsolete rank of Serjeant-at-Law was formerly more senior, though it was overtaken formally in the 1670s, and professionally in the course of the late eighteenth century by the newer rank. The Attorney-General and Solicitor-General, had similarly succeeded the King's Serjeants as leaders of the Bar in Tudor times, though not technically senior until 1623 (except for the two senior King's Serjeants) and 1813 respectively (JH Baker, "The English Legal Profession 1450-1550" in Wilfred Prest (ed), Lawyers in Early Modern Europe and America (1981), 20). But the Queen's Counsel only emerged into eminence and integrity in the early 1830s, prior to when they were relatively few in number. It became the standard means of recognising that a barrister was a senior member of the profession, and the numbers multiplied accordingly (Daniel Duman, The English and Colonial Bars in the Nineteenth Century (1983) 35.) It became of greater professional importance to become a QC, and the serjeants gradually declined. The QCs inherited not merely the prestige of the serjeants, but enjoyed priority before the courts.

Queen's Counsel and serjeants were prohibited, at least from the mid-nineteenth century, from doing chamber work. They were briefed together with a junior barrister, and they had to have chambers in London (Duman 98-99). In Scotland, a separate roll of Queen's Counsel was created only in 1897, with the first appointed 1898. Formerly, the only QC appointed from the Scots Bar were the Law Officers, and the Dean of the Faculty of Advocates. Till 1920 in England and Wales they had to have a licence to appear in criminal cases for the defence. On appointment, QCs renounced the preparation of written pleadings and other chamber practices.

Queen's Counsel were traditionally selected from barristers, rather than from lawyers in general. This was because they were counsel appointed to conduct court work on behalf of the Crown. Although the limitations upon private employment was gradually relaxed, they continued to be selected from barristers, who had the sole right of audience to the higher courts. However, in 1994 solicitors of England and Wales were entitled to be admitted to the upper courts. Some 275 were so practising in 1995. In 1995 these solicitors alone became entitled to apply for appointment as Queen's Counsel. The first such was appointed March 1997 (On 27 March 1997, of the 68 new QCs announced, two were solicitors. These were Arthur Marriott (53), partner of the London office of the American law firm of Wilmer Cutler and Pickering, and Dr Lawrence Collins (55), a partner of the City law firm of Herbert Smith.).


Queen's Counsel are generally retained in Commonwealth Realms where Queen Elizabeth II is head of State, and elsewhere the style is now Senior or State Counsel.

The appointment of Queen's Counsel has been suspended and there is a consultation under way in the United Kingdom as the Government intends to reform the position of Queen's Counsel. One possible reform would involve professional bodies rather than the Crown appointing QCs, which would involve changing the title to Senior Counsel.