More action needed to close gender gap on Queen’s Counsel

New research conducted by the Work Foundation has shown that, despite efforts already made to ensure that the Queen’s Counsel (QC) appointment system gives all qualified applicants a fair chance of appointment, more action is needed to encourage applications from women.

Last year’s QC competition saw the greatest ever success for women applicants – and yet even then only 22% of applicants, and 27% of those appointed, were women. This is despite the fact that women represent between 30% and 35% of those in the realistic pool for appointment. Women have generally had a higher success rate in the competition than men, but that has not been sufficient to compensate for the fact that women are considerably less likely to apply.

The current QC application system was introduced in 2005 after the old system, which saw decisions made solely by the Lord Chancellor following consultation with the judiciary, was suspended due to dwindling professional and public confidence. The current system relies on evidence of applicants’ performance as advocate in a number of significant cases over recent years. This evidence is provided by assessors – judges, fellow advocates and professional clients who have first-hand knowledge of the applicant’s performance. The evidence is considered by an independent Selection Panel, half of whom are non-lawyers, who make recommendations which the Lord Chancellor passes on to Her Majesty.

The research found that there are a number of reasons for the comparative reluctance of women advocates to apply for appointment:

  • Women found it more difficult to find enough suitable cases over the last two years, especially if they had had a career break
  • Women found it more difficult to identify enough assessors, especially judicial assessors,  to provide evidence of their performance
  • Women were more reluctant than male advocates to approach judicial assessors to ask if they were willing to provide an assessment of them.

The researchers noted that action to improve the representation of women amongst QCs was not just a matter for the QC appointment system. The proportion of women in practice after 15 years is only slightly above 30%, despite the fact that almost equal numbers of women and men are called to the Bar.

The researchers recommended a number of measures to encourage women to apply for appointment as QC:

  • The number of cases required to be listed should be reduced from 12, and the period over which they can come should be increased from two to three years
  • The number of  judicial assessors  required should be reduced
  • Action should be taken to ensure a better gender balance on the  QC Selection Panel (at present, there are seven men and three women)
  • The professional bodies should make it clear that there is no limit on the number of applicants who can be appointed each year, and that all those who meet the required standard will be recommended for appointment.

Dr Zofia Bajorek, who led the research for the Work Foundation says: “These findings are important as they reveal the reasons why female barristers are prevented from progressing their career and often leave at the point of having a family. We’re delighted to be able to present a set of recommendations to the QCA so that they can make the process of applying for silk easier for women. In addition, the QCA’s position within the legal profession means they can lead the way in dismantling barriers to women progressing their careers and encourage other organisations within law, such as Chambers, to recognise these barriers and work to remove them.”

Sir Alex Allan, Chair of the QC Selection Panel said: “We are very grateful to the Work Foundation for this report. The Selection Panel is determined to do all it can to ensure that the QC appointment system is equally available to all advocates who meet the standards for appointment. The QC system has come a long way from the last year of the old scheme, when fewer than 10% of applicants (and only 7% of those appointed) were women, but we recognise that there is more to do.

“In response to the emerging findings from the report, we have already emphasised to applicants that evidence from cases over the last three years, rather than just over the last two years, is acceptable. We look forward to working closely with the professional bodies to take forward a number of the other recommendations in the report, in order to help to ensure that the senior ranks of the legal profession truly reflect the society they serve.”

 

NOTES FOR EDITORS

  1. The research was commissioned by Queen’s Counsel Appointments after a competitive tender process.
  2. Although solicitors with rights of audience in the higher courts and employed barristers are eligible to apply for appointment as QC, the research was conducted amongst barristers in independent practice, because those constitute over 90% of applicants.
  3. The researchers interviewed 34 advocates, 9 of whom were QCs and 25 of whom were not. The researchers also organised a workshop at which a wider group discussed a number of the emerging issues.
  4. For further comment on the report, please contact Lara Cowperthwaite from the Work Foundation (l.cowperthwaite@lancaster.ac.uk or 01524 510998) or Russell Wallman, Chief Executive of Queen’s Counsel Appointments (Russell.wallman@qcappointments.org; 0207-831-0020; 07570-998449).
  5. Copies of the full research may be obtained from the Work Foundation: http://www.theworkfoundation.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/421_Balancing-the-scales.pdf