HL Deb 28 April 2004 vol 660 cc775-7

2.54 p.m.

Lord Goodhart asked Her Majesty's Government:

When they will announce whether there are to be any further appointments to the rank of Queen's Counsel.

The Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs and Lord Chancellor (Lord Falconer of Thoroton)

My Lords, before I answer the Question, could I declare an interest? I myself was a QC, my wife is a QC and my brother-in-law is a QC.

We hope to make an announcement soon. The consultation did not produce consensus on the way forward. We have been in discussion with professional bodies with a view to providing a sensible way forward which meets the issues raised in the consultation and, crucially, provides a solution in the interests of the public.

Lord Goodhart

My Lords, might I start by being entirely out of order in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Renton, who has just reached the 50th anniversary of his appointment as a QC?

It is now a year since the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg, announced the suspension of the 2004 Silk round in order to enable the system to be reviewed. Is the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor aware, as I am sure he is, that the delay has been a matter of considerable concern to the profession as a whole and, in particular, to those who would have applied for an appointment this year, had the Silk round taken place? Can he give us any information as to the direction in which the Government are moving, whether it is towards simple abolition, to the creation of some revised form of public appointment or to inviting the legal profession to award its own kite marks?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I join the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Renton, on 50 years in Silk. I congratulate, too, the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, who has had 25 years in silk. They are having a party today in the Lord Chancellor's residence to celebrate 75 years in Silk. I hope that my declaration of interest and that congratulation do not give the impression that this is too incestuous a place with regard to QCs.

Yes, I am aware of the concerns in relation to the prolonged period of consultation and the failure so far to decide what the policy is. It would be wrong at this stage for me to give only half an answer. We should give an answer as quickly as possible but, as I said in my Answer, the answer must be ultimately judged by what is in the interests of the people who use legal services rather than those who provide them.

Lord Renton

My Lords, while thanking the noble and learned Lord and the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, for their kind references, may I put two serious points—both reasons for retaining Queen's Counsel—to the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor? First, if a barrister becomes a very busy junior with a tremendous amount of paperwork, it is impossible for him to carry on with that way of life within the profession. It is much better that he should become a QC. The other reason—the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor must surely already have discovered this—is that making judicial appointments, from High Court and Crown Court judges right down to minor judicial appointments, is much easier if there is a difference within the profession, and that is done by the presence of Queen's Counsel.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I hope that at some stage in the course of this debate, somebody who either is not currently a QC or was not once a QC plays some part.

As for the points that the noble Lord has made, yes, those are arguments in favour of retention. However, he will be aware of what the OFT and the Commission for Judicial Appointments said about the inconsistency in the way in which appointments were made and the difficulty of making judgments in relation to the effect on the cost of provision of legal services. In reaching a solution in relation to the role of QC, we need to address those arguments as well as the arguments referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Renton.

Lord Davies of Coity

My Lords, I certainly agree with my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor that a decision has to be based on how the users rather than the providers view the situation. To what extent and how widespread is the objection from current users?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, one purpose of the consultation that we put in place was to try to obtain the views of users. There was only a limited response in that regard. People's individual experience of using the law when they have a QC is often extremely favourable, but there are wider questions about the effect on cost and about how we ensure that a mark such as QC preserves quality in the long term.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, will the noble and learned Lord tell us what will happen to the present Queen's Counsel if no more are appointed? Will they all he unfrocked?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, in the course of the consultation, that particular issue was raised.

However, I wonder whether it would be sensible for someone to call himself, for example, the noble Lord, Lord Renton, QC (Ex).

Lord Selsdon

My Lords, will the noble and learned Lord remind us how many QCs there are in this House and in the other place and whether we have enough or too many?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I think that might be a matter for your Lordships' House. The number in this House is uncountable.

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