Going for Silk

As 108 new Queen’s Counsel are announced, Peter Purvis profiles four recent appointees with ‘atypical’ backgrounds, practice or circumstances – showing that preconceptions shouldn’t hold you back


 

Caroline Haughey QC, 
Furnival Chambers, London 

‘Caroline was concerned that she might have an insufficient number of cases, because extended maternity leave had left her very reliant on two long, albeit substantial, cases… but was reassured by QCA...’

Caroline knew she wanted to become a criminal barrister from the age of eight after seeing a news report about a missing girl (who was subsequently found to have been murdered). She was born in Northern Ireland during the height of the Troubles to parents who came from either side of the Catholic/ Protestant divide. They had uncompromisingly positive values around integrity, loyalty and tolerance and were determined that Caroline would have the opportunity to make up her own mind about matters of religion. However, because most schools in Northern Ireland were organised along sectarian lines, this meant sending her abroad for her schooling. It is a decision for which she is eternally grateful, fiercely proud as she is of her family’s encouragement of liberal values and for sowing the seeds of her love for debate and the British criminal justice system.

Caroline’s leading role in the development of anti-slavery and anti-people trafficking legislation can be traced directly back to those family values. Her interest in the area was sparked after she prosecuted the first modern slavery case in 2011, working with a vulnerable witness who was a trafficked African woman. Besides helping develop the Modern Slavery Act 2015 at the request of the Prime Minister, Caroline also led an independent review into its effectiveness one year on. She was instrumental in making sentences more commensurate with the crime. Hitherto, the maximum sentence for people trafficking was 14 years, meaning that a criminal could ‘receive a longer sentence for smuggling some cocaine than for smuggling a thousand human beings’.

Unlike colleagues in the commercial field, however, Caroline could not look to the level of her fees as a marker for where her practice stood and found it incredibly valuable when colleagues began to suggest to her that the time was right for her to make an application for Silk. She was concerned that she might have an insufficient number of cases (because extended maternity leave had left her very reliant on two long, albeit substantial, cases during the crucial period) but was reassured by QCA that this would not be a barrier to making a potentially successful application. The message to others is not to let your unusual background or circumstances hold you back from applying if you are confident that you have what it takes to become a Queen’s Counsel.

Conscious that, to date, still fewer than 400 women have been appointed as Queen’s Counsel, Caroline considers herself to be fortunate to be able to combine the roles of mother to four girls (all under the age of nine), with taking the step up to Silk in her chosen field. She is particularly grateful to the support of her husband and also believes that today’s women barristers owe a huge debt of gratitude to the women who blazed a trail for them, such as Dame Rose Heilbron (one of the first women to be appointed (then) King’s Counsel) and Elizabeth Lane (the first woman to be appointed a High Court judge). As such, she feels ‘incredibly lucky and privileged’ to be in a position to help those who come behind her, through mentoring.


Joanna Martin QC, 
Devon Chambers, Plymouth 

‘The first step to Silk, she feels, was probably becoming a Recorder, an experience which so boosted her confidence that later, when the Circuit judges suggested that she should apply for Silk, she thought that was a credible possibility.’

Jo says she’d had no long-term plan to become a Silk. Having done poorly in her A levels, she secured a place at a local college to do an English degree, and it was only after graduation that even so much as the idea of becoming a barrister developed. However, being unsure how to set about this, in 1996 she began work in a clerical capacity in the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) in London magistrates’ courts.

Subsequently, she became a law clerk at the Old Bailey (which she describes as ‘an amazing place to work’) and later the CPS sponsored her on a three-year law degree course at evening classes. Following graduation, she took the Diploma in Legal Practice, qualifying as a solicitor and in 2003, transferred to the SFO for two years as an investigative lawyer. Missing courtroom advocacy, however, she re-joined the CPS in Devon and on becoming a Higher Court Advocate, she became a member of Devon Chambers and transferred to the Bar.

The first step to Silk, she feels, was probably becoming a Recorder, an experience which so boosted her confidence that later, when the Circuit judges suggested that she should apply for Silk, she thought that was a credible possibility. She did, though, think it was possibly harder for a woman in criminal work to put together an application for Silk than a man because women barristers tended to be ‘pigeon-holed’ into dealing with rape cases or children cases. Jo had, however, worked on some very demanding cases in those areas but also on complex and weighty fraud and confiscation cases, including one that had gone to the Supreme Court.

It is not an exaggeration to say she found the application form formidable. The hardest part, she feels, was in having to ask her peers and the judges if they would be willing to be named as assessors – although in the event they all responded with an enthusiastic ‘yes’. Jo said that she had been influenced by the Selection Panel’s preference for applicants not to be coached and ended up enjoying the interview (prior to which she had re-read her application form and the competencies framework, and also garnered information on what she had done since submitting her form).

It’s always hard to predict how things might pan out as a new QC. Jo felt that on the one hand she might establish a successful geographical niche as a criminal Silk in the West Country, but on the other hand if she didn’t ‘cut the mustard’ it could prove to have been a rather costly step. In spring 2018, she received her first QC murder brief, which she described as ‘incredibly exciting’.

To anyone who aspires to a career at the Bar, Jo says ‘never give up’. People develop at different rates and some, as she had, ‘bloom’ later in life. The benefits she derived from the work and life experiences of a less conventional path were invaluable.

She also feels that the CPS had been an incredibly inclusive employer that ‘allowed you to thrive’ irrespective of any personal characteristics. And as a gay woman, she has never felt any prejudice from the Bar or judiciary in the West Country. If she ‘stood out’ in any way, it is, currently, as the only female criminal Silk west of Bristol.


Sarabjit Singh QC, 1 Crown 
Office Row Chambers, London

‘Diversity was the competency that had initially been the hardest for Sarabjit to enunciate. However, he says it ‘all fell into place’ when he realised that diversity was all about awareness and taking action, and it was essential to provide concrete examples of proactivity.’

Sarabjit had, quite early on, set himself the ambition of becoming a QC whilst still in his 30s. His pathway to becoming a barrister, however, required a lot of very hard work and focus. The son of Punjabi immigrants, who worked in factories when they first arrived in Britain in the 1970s, Sarabjit’s father later worked as a minicab driver, before he and his wife began running a corner shop. He attended his local comprehensive school which was not academic but where he had ‘a great time’. Yet by the age of 14, he had decided that he wanted to become a barrister – because ‘I love a good argument!’ – and went on to secure a place at Oxford University and then Bar School, being the first one in his family to attend university or work in the legal profession.

Having applied successfully to 1 Crown Office Row, where he has since remained, he was initially doing a mixture of work. Later he found himself increasingly working on tax cases, enjoying the focus on interpretation of statutes which those cases required. He also continued to work on ‘the more human’ areas of law like clinical negligence and acting for survivors of abuse, ‘where you can see what the law actually means to people’s lives’.

Finding himself increasingly up against Silks in heavyweight cases, 2017 seemed like the perfect year to make his application. In preparing, Sarabjit spoke to Silks recently successful in the competition and became thoroughly familiar with the guidance for applicants. He found the QCA Secretariat extremely helpful but felt that perhaps more could be done to make applicants less reliant on expensive consultants, suggesting the guidance might be improved with examples of a hypothetical case to illustrate what the Selection Panel sought. Before his interview, he had thought about all the possible questions that he might be asked and, in the end, found the interviewers to be pleasant, down-to-earth, professional, fair and extremely thorough.

Diversity was the competency that had initially been the hardest for him to enunciate. However, he says it ‘all fell into place’ when he realised that diversity was all about awareness and taking action, and it was essential to provide concrete examples of proactivity.

Sarabjit’s advice to young people with a serious ambition to pursue a career in advocacy is to work hard to achieve excellent academic results. Also attend court and involve themselves in moots and mini-pupillages. There is, he says, no substitute for hard work at every stage on the path.

Sarabjit mentored young people in groups under-represented in the profession (particularly at the higher levels). He is acutely aware that there are ‘some very talented people out there’ who have yet to be reached, the profession still being overwhelmingly middle-class (albeit the gender and ethnic balance are improving). He feels talented young people from working-class backgrounds are still not being encouraged sufficiently to apply to university, much less to Oxbridge.

On being appointed Silk, Sarabjit has noticed a difference in the way his peers and judges address him and listen to what he had to say. Also, that the QC ‘badge’ bestows a new level of authority to clients. At the time, he also rather enjoyed ‘sitting in the front row and getting to look properly swish in that lovely tailored court coat and waistcoat!’


Nicholas Khan QC,
European Commission Legal Service 

‘Happily, the reformed system opened up eligibility to people with unusual practices such as his, by allowing assessments from judges in other jurisdictions such as the European courts, which was indispensable for his application.’

Nicholas Khan QC was the first lawyer to be appointed Silk while working in a European Union institution. A ‘happy chapter of accidents’ had put him on his particular and rather unusual career path. After studying law and doing his first six months of pupillage at a Chancery set, Nicholas became a stagiaire in the European Commission’s Industry Directorate, which made him aware of the opportunities available in the EU Institutions.

At the end of his second pupillage back in London, no tenancy was available, so Nicholas returned to Brussels, sitting the Commission’s entrance exam for young lawyers, securing a third six in a London set whilst awaiting the result. Having passed the exam, Nicholas decided the transition from private practice would be easier if he had experience of work as a government lawyer, so he had a short but interesting time at the Department of Trade and Industry, awaiting a suitable vacancy in the Commission. Still keen on advocacy, Nicholas secured a position in the Commission’s central Legal Service, which uses its own in-house advocates. Over the next ten years, Nicholas handled a wide range of work, from free movement of persons and sex discrimination, to anti-dumping and state aid investigations, the cases becoming steadily more legally and factually complex and demanding.

Nicholas returned to practice in London at the end of 1999. It had highpoints – a couple of cases before the House of Lords – but the workflow was patchy, so after three years, he took up the offer to return to the Commission’s Legal Service, in 2003. Having married at about that time, Nicholas and family settled in Brussels, where Nicholas has continued to build his career ever since.

In Nicholas’s view, one of the great attractions of being an employed barrister working for the EU, is that one never has to go ‘running after work’ and that EU law cases are intrinsically demanding and important, more often than not involving novel points of law. His work also provides occasional opportunities to appear in the English courts, the state aid and competition rules allowing the Commission to intervene in national cases raising important points of law in these areas.

Nicholas first thought about applying for QC when he began to find himself frequently up against Silks. Happily, the reformed system opened up eligibility to people with unusual practices such as his, by allowing assessments from judges in other jurisdictions such as the European courts, which was indispensable for his application.

Nicholas had no difficulty in identifying 12 cases that met the scheme’s definition of substantial – although he would have appreciated a little bit more space to describe them! He emphasised that you need to ensure every word used advances your application. His biggest hurdle was in convincing the Panel that his oral advocacy in the European courts met the criteria for excellence in the higher courts of England and Wales, which he was able to do by emphasising the importance placed on putting questions to the parties at hearings in the European courts.

In his Silk interview, the discussion flowed naturally from talking about his cases to working with others. The interviewers were skilled at drawing him out with probing questions. He appreciated the opening question about current cases, which eased him into the interview and gave him the opportunity to update the Panel on his practice.

Nicholas was delighted for the Commission Legal Service that one of its own had been recognised with the accolade of Queen’s Counsel. Appropriately enough, his first court appearance on becoming a QC was before the Master of the Rolls, intervening in a series of appeals about the interpretation of a Commission Decision regarding Mastercard’s Interchange Fees. On a personal level, it meant that he now finds himself sought out by colleagues working on other areas of EU law, wanting him to ‘moonlight’ for them!

Peter Purvis is policy adviser to the Queen’s Counsel Selection Panel in the QCA Secretariat. This is his ninth competition. He was previously a senior civil servant in DEFRA, a freelance consultant on EU issues and a counsellor.


Changes to the 2019 Competition: advice to prospective applicants

Following consultation earlier this year, the professional bodies intend to make a change to the application process for the 2019 competition.

Although applicants will continue to be asked to list 12 cases of substance in which they have been engaged as an advocate, applicants will in future be asked to list a judge, a fellow advocate, and a client from each listed case where possible, rather than listing a total of eight judges, six fellow advocates, and four clients as prospective assessors. A note explaining the professional bodies’ decision in the light of the consultation is at bit.ly/2019comp.

The Guidance for Applicants, which is published in February 2019 at the time the competition is opened for applications, will give further guidance about the selection of prospective assessors. In the meantime, prospective applicants are welcome to email the QCA Chief Executive at Russell.wallman@qcappointments.org if they have any questions.

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Peter Purvis

Peter is policy adviser to the Queen’s Counsel Selection Panel in the QCA Secretariat. This is his ninth Silk competition. He was previously a senior civil servant in DEFRA, freelance consultant on EU issues and a counsellor.