Call for QCs to be scrapped as research shows barrister diversity divide

Three quarters of the UK’s top judges and QCs went to private school, a new survey by the Sutton Trust and PRIME has found.

The survey looked at the 147 High Court and Court of Appeal judges, and 100 top-ranked QCs. It found that 74 per cent of the judges and 71 per cent of the QCs went to private school. Some 74 per cent of judges and 78 per cent of QCs attended Oxbridge.

Chairman of the Sutton Trust Sir Peter Lampl said: “The findings, in particular the worrying fact that the high proportion of privately educated judges has barely changed since the 1980s, warns us that there is still a big social mobility problem within the legal sector.

”There have been improvements however, not least in the monitoring of solicitors and in the willingness of big legal firms to work through programmes like PRIME and our Pathways to Law programme.

“We need to see those efforts redoubled, and to persuade the sceptics that it is vital to get the best talent into law. Irrespective of background, bright young people need to be able to achieve his or her potential and access jobs in law if that is their chosen profession.”

Meanwhile, a separate study by the London School of Economics has found that, Oxbridge-educated, London-based male barristers are still far more likely to make silk, despite a major reform to the QC appointments system in 2004 designed to make things fairer.

The study found that before 2004, an Oxbridge graduate in an average set had an 57 per cent chance of becoming a QC if male and 44 per cent chance if female.

Since the reforms, those numbers have fallen to 52 per cent for men and 40 per cent for women, suggesting the gender gap has not closed.

The author of the study, tax law professor and former Linklaters lawyer Dr Michael Blackwell, said: “Reforms to the QC appointments system were introduced to address concerns that the old system of secret soundings unfairly disadvantaged groups such a women and those who were not part of a well-connected elite, eg non-Oxbridge graduates. Given this, it is very surprising that in the post-reform period the estimated partial effect of gender remains substantively large.”

The research also showed that since the reforms, Oxbridge graduates are even more likely to become QCs than their non-Oxbridge peers.

Blackwell said: “Because of the failure of the QC system to appoint the best advocates it does not operate as a perfect kite-mark of quality for consumers. Nor does it equally distribute the awards of QC status on any equitable basis. Finally, it might be thought to inhibit judicial diversity by restricting the pool from which the senior judiciary is traditionally recruited.”

“The award of QC status is effectively for life, which might be thought to make the claim that it is a kite-mark of quality dubious.”

He added: “Serious policy debate about abolishing QC status has evaporated following the 2004 reforms. But the research in this article and additional arguments show there to be serious issues as to whether the existence of QC status is in the public interest.


16 Feb 15: Why be a QC?

14 Jan 15: Silk appointment numbers drop but female applicants at all-time high

27 Feb 13: QC appointments slip to all time low with 84 made up

14 Jun 12: Women begin to close gender gap in some judicial appointments

29 Nov 04: Law Society and Bar Council agree on revolutionary new QC appointment scheme