Samantha Bowcock QC

Winckley Square Chambers, Preston

Samantha was one of 30 women (alongside 84 men) appointed silk at the declaration ceremony held in Westminster Hall on 16 March 2020. A Manchester University graduate, Samantha joined her present chambers as a pupil. She was called to the Bar in 1990 and is Winckley Square Chambers’ first ‘home grown’ QC. She is a family and children specialist and regularly appears in the High Court in cases dealing with allegations that death, serious injury or sexual abuse of children occurred at the hands of parents or family members. Her cases include adoption, acting for children and local authorities in complex cases, judicial reviews involving claims against local authorities and human rights claims for parents and children in public law/social services cases.

Samantha is from a working-class background, both of her parents having left school at the age of fifteen. Her father worked for British Gas and her mother was a cook at Manchester United’s training ground. The 11+ was abolished the year before Samantha was due to take the examination and she attended a comprehensive school that had previously been a grammar school. Her parents did not have much money but were ‘extraordinarily supportive’ making it possible for Samantha to be the first in her family to attend university. They continued to support her whilst she studied for the Bar finals in London (at that time the only location it was possible to do so). During her vacations Samantha worked as a washer-up at Manchester United’s training ground.

Samantha initially had a broad practice but gradually ‘family stuff took over’ as her strong interest in children in care and adoption cases developed. After some 15 years, Samantha was getting increasingly bigger cases and her practice was gaining momentum as she found herself frequently working alongside and against QCs. She began to feel that she ought to apply for silk. However, Samantha’s partner had died of cancer some years beforehand and she was a single parent. She therefore waited a few more years until her daughter was away at university and she no longer had to ‘put being a mum first’. She originally planned to apply for silk in 2018 but soon discovered that she needed more time to prepare thoroughly and strategically in order to make her best bid for silk. She was willing to have one further attempt at the competition if her first one was unsuccessful but that would have been all. She would have been perfectly content to continue as a senior junior doing her ‘extremely fulfilling’ cases. It was what she enjoyed most and had she never, for example, had any desire to apply for part-time positions on the bench.

Samantha said she had to think extremely hard about her cases in terms of the standard of excellence that had to be demonstrated across all of the competences. Given her specialism, she felt that Competency A (understanding and using the law) might be the most challenging one on which to provide the necessary evidence. She had to ‘dig deep’ to identify sufficiently complex law but had been able to do so with her work for local authorities on homeless teenagers. Samantha did not use an outside consultant to help her with her application as she wanted to present her ‘real self’ before the Panel. And she felt that she did just that at her Panel interview, where the Panel pair gave her the best opportunity to shine. It was a ‘good experience’. Indeed, she found the whole application process to be highly satisfactory from start to finish.

‘Delight and surprise’ were Samantha’s key emotions on learning that she had been successful on her first attempt at applying for QC. She was particularly pleased to be able to provide an example of what was possible for junior members of her chambers. Samantha said her advice to them was ‘work hard and never give up’. As a silk she was ready to work even harder than ever. The silk ceremony was ‘amazing’ – but also ‘poignant’ given that the Coronavirus ‘lockdown’ was to follow so swiftly just days later. Samantha was accompanied by her family and her senior clerk, and everyone enjoined a fantastic weekend in London leading up to the ceremony. Due to the lockdown, Samantha’s cases have been pushed back to later in the year although there has continued to be case management and interim hearings. However, Samantha has no shortage of advisory work which is keeping her very busy in the meanwhile.

Gurdeep Garcha QC

Citadel Chambers, Birmingham

Gurdeep, who is believed to be the first BAME QC to be appointed at the Birmingham Criminal Bar, was sworn in as a new silk in March 2020. He is a criminal defence specialist, now concentrating on the most serious cases, essentially leading on murder/manslaughter, terrorism and very serious drugs and sex offences.

Gurdeep was raised in Birmingham by working class parents who had arrived in England in 1965 from the Punjab. He considered that his career choice was strongly informed by his heritage as ‘Punjabis love to debate and argue!’ Gurdeep attended an inner-city comprehensive school where as ‘a bright kid’ he stood out. He began to think seriously about a career in the legal profession during the sixth form. Gurdeep chose Warwick University to do his law degree because he felt this would be ‘a better fit’ for him than Oxbridge.

Newly married at the time, Gurdeep joined 6 King’s Walk Chambers in London. He had at first felt something of an outsider in the profession. As a Sikh, Gurdeep has never worn a wig in court (‘I did not need a wig to be a very good barrister’) and, in any case, ‘looking different could also be an advantage, particularly in court’. Gurdeep returned to Birmingham in 1999, to Citadel Chambers, where he has remained. He found himself increasingly up against silks in big cases, and he mapped out a three-year plan for an application for silk. He kept a full record of every significant case and every important piece of advocacy, and eventually chose 12 cases from a longer list. Meanwhile, Gurdeep kept a line of communication open with prospective assessors. He did not seek assistance in completing his form as he considered this should be entirely his own work and reveal his ‘true voice’. On submitting his application form, Gurdeep put it to one side.

Gurdeep found the interview enjoyable. He had the confidence from re-reading his application form shortly beforehand. Gurdeep had seen a coach three days before his QC interview and found this helpful in terms of bolstering his confidence. He was soon able to relax in the interview as the Panel interviewers put him at his ease. There were tough questions but the biggest challenge came from being a solely defence specialist, with his most recent case as prosecutor some ten years earlier.

Returning to schools like the one Gurdeep himself attended, to do outreach work, was a useful reminder of how far he had come. He always told bright young people that they should not allow concerns about such phenomena as a closed shop and glass ceilings to become ‘lazy excuses’ not to pursue their ambitions. He told them that it was not enough to be intellectually bright; self-belief and sustained hard work would also be essential.

Gurdeep was delighted at being appointed Queen’s Counsel – which he described as the pinnacle of the profession. As the weeks passed following the interview, Gurdeep had managed to convince himself that he had been unsuccessful and admitted to ‘having a few tears’ in the robing room when the e-mail arrived informing him he had been successful. To celebrate his success and thank his wife for her ‘amazing support over the years’, on Christmas night Gurdeep flew off with her to Dubai for a short break.

Being the first BAME QC at the Midlands Criminal Bar was a significant achievement, and Gurdeep hoped that his elevation would provide as an inspiration to others from minority heritage and working-class backgrounds. Being made a silk was ‘in equal parts a challenge and a thrill’. Gurdeep had been concerned that his practice might ‘fall off a cliff’ as he lost senior-junior briefs and sought replacement QC level cases. But that had not happened and, by August 2020 Gurdeep had picked up six murder cases.

As a practitioner, Gurdeep has always kept in mind ‘the human being and their social, economic and cultural status – avoiding, where possible, getting bogged down in the legal niceties of the offence with which the client has been charged’. That will not change.

John Mehrzad QC

Littleton Chambers, London

John was appointed silk in 2020 after just 13 years’ practice at the Bar. He practises in employment, commercial and sports law with a focus on domestic and international sporting arbitrations and High Court business protection litigation.

In terms of sports law, John mainly acts in financial disputes between clubs, managers, players and agents, and on regulatory matters, including disciplinary and equality issues. Amongst other roles, John is a leader in conducting independent reviews in sport, for example, UK Athletics’ handling of allegations concerning Alberto Salazar.

John recalls as a 10-year-old seeing the beautiful lawns and buildings of the Temple, London (where he now works). When he asked his parents what happened there, they did not know; the family having no connection with the legal profession. His mother was Irish and his father a political exile from the 1979 Iranian revolution. John recalls growing up hearing tales of imprisonment, summary executions and displacement, which instilled in him a passion for justice.

From the age of 13 John was raised by his mother alone after his father died. He studied history and languages at Trinity College, Dublin, followed by a post-graduate and lecturing at Nantes University, France. After completing a masters in political history at Oxford University, John attended Bar school in London.

The growing but still niche area of sports law was a natural choice. John had been very keen on sport from a young age, rowing being a particular passion – in which he earned a senior international vest after years of torturous training since, in his own words, he had ‘no natural talent whatsoever’ for that discipline. He feels strongly that the attributes needed for top-level sport overlap with those required for success at the Bar, not least self-motivation, hard work and a strong will.

Before embarking on his legal career, John worked as a stagiaire in two EU institutions and in finance for a year. That commercial experience has proved useful in his practice, by avoiding being distracted by legal niceties to the detriment of business goals. After his pupillage, John took tenancy at an employment and common law set, gradually focusing on the commercial aspects of employment law, with an increasing number of sporting clients.

After five years, John moved to Littleton Chambers, where he set up, and has since led, its Sports Law Group. That Group’s ‘Inspire’ Sports Law Initiative offers work experience and mentoring to underrepresented groups at the Bar and athletes transitioning into legal careers.

After a run of successful higher court cases, substantial arbitrations alongside and against QCs, and a number of high-profile independent reviews, John decided the time was right to apply for silk, especially since he had been overlooked for certain instructions by some clients or appointing bodies who wanted a ‘QC’ label.

To prepare for his QC interview, John left no stone unturned. He had mock interviews, analysed his body language, knew his application form back to front and thoroughly researched each of the interviewers. The interview itself went as John expected. The interviewers’ first question concerned sports law, which allowed John to demonstrate quickly that his practice was not ‘run of the mill’.

Overall, John found the application process to be fair and testing, albeit a long one. He began serious preparations in the October before the competition year and, following his interview the following September, John did not have too much difficulty in putting the competition to the back of his mind and getting back to his busy practice. However, it was a long wait until the official outcome in mid-January in the following year.

John, his wife and his mother had ‘an astonishing, incomparable day’ when they attended the QC ceremony (just days before the first national lockdown). John said it was also wonderful speaking to some members of the Selection Panel at the ceremony.

Looking to life as a newly appointed silk, John had by the summer of 2020 already seen his sports law practice become even busier and he expects to have to manage even more ‘plate spinning’ in future. Whenever he can though, John still finds time to go running with a fellow Temple QC to clear the mind.

Melanie Simpson QC

25 Bedford Row Chambers, London

Melanie is one of 30 women appointed to silk in 2020. Her high-profile criminal defence cases, often involving multiple defendants, attract extensive media interest and Melanie frequently provides legal expertise to media organisations.

Melanie’s parents were young adults when they came to the UK from Jamaica as part of the ‘Windrush’ generation. Her father was a bus conductor and her mother worked in a factory. Melanie went to grammar school but felt isolated as one of very few black pupils there. She left at 16 and worked for Rape Crisis and Women’s Aid. This experience brought her into contact with the criminal justice system and sparked her ambition to go to university and become a criminal defence barrister.

Following graduation, Melanie did her ‘first six’ pupillage on the Western Circuit. It was unfunded and this was an extremely demanding time as Melanie had a young child to care for, having given birth just after her final exams at university. Melanie’s ‘second six’ was a family pupillage but with occasional attendances at the criminal courts, which provided the final push to move across to that area of work, at Tooks Court Chambers, London.

Melanie considers that things have gradually got better for women barristers on issues such as maternity breaks, carer responsibilities and part-time working. When Melanie went to her current Chambers at 25 Bedford Row there were only two other women barristers who had children, compared with over half of the female barristers there now. However, there is still a long way to go as currently only three of the nineteen silks in her Chambers are women.

A few years ago, Melanie knew that with her level of practice it was time to apply for QC. Melanie finally felt 100% confident that she was ready after a respected senior judge told her that she should put in an application. It took her another year to apply for QC because she was initially put off by the demands of the application form. She took the plunge in 2019, taking the competition process ‘one step at a time’.

Like many applicants, Melanie found approaching her potential assessors took a lot of courage. In the event, they all were all very supportive. Melanie prepared for the interview by ensuring that she ‘knew my application form and cases inside out’. She was ‘pushed hard’ at the interview but the interviewers were clearly interested in finding out as much as possible about her and her practice.

Melanie considers that there are still many barriers to overcome to improve diversity at the Bar and make the profession more representative of the society it served. In particular, class, race, educational opportunity and social mobility remain key challenges. Melanie says that her identity is formed as much by her working-class background as from being a black woman. She was delighted that those from similar backgrounds as her can now see ‘someone like me’ in silk. To succeed in a career in the profession, Melanie says that you needed resilience and self-belief. What you look like, or your accent or any other personal characteristic are irrelevant; what matters, she says, is how skilled and effective you are as an advocate.

Heidi Stonecliffe QC

Crown Prosecution Service, London

Heidi has worked for the CPS since 2006 and is thought to be only the fourth lawyer – and the first woman – at the CPS to be made silk. The daughter of a legal secretary and railway worker, Heidi attended a girls’ grammar in Sittingbourne. Her school teachers expressed surprise when Heidi told them that she wanted to become a barrister, having been inspired by reading Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. One teacher asked at the time ‘Do women do that?’

Called to the Bar in 1996, Heidi has practiced solely in criminal law, initially in a solicitors’ firm defending clients facing serious criminal charges. In 2006, she joined the CPS and developed a niche practice prosecuting large-scale, lengthy multi-defendant cases involving firearms, drugs and violence. In 2012, Heidi moved to the International Justice and Organised Crime Division prosecuting the most serious cases. Heidi steadily built a portfolio of cases with a view to achieving silk following a ‘watershed’ case in 2013 where the judge had said that Heidi should consider applying for QC. Heidi delayed applying for QC until 2019 when Heidi had ‘the perfect storm’ of cases and potential assessors and having received reassurance from QCA that she could include the 2013 ‘watershed’ case and list fewer than twelve substantial cases due to the nature of her practice.

In September 2019, Heidi was ‘delighted and surprised’ to receive an invitation to interview. The interview was hard but pleasant, the interviewers well-informed about her and her cases. She was delighted when a question came up on her 2013 ‘watershed’ case. Heidi felt that she had done well at interview but that she could have done better to demonstrate her commitment to and involvement in social mobility issues. Heidi believes passionately that increasing diversity in at the Bar is crucial if it is to become more representative of the society it serves. Younger people needed to see more ‘people like me’ at the senior levels of the profession. When Heidi speaks to state school pupils as part of her Inn’s scholarship scheme, she finds that her own story – and things like her accent – help to challenge the persistent stereotype of the white, male, publicly-school educated barrister.

Heidi said hearing that she was to be recommended for QC was ‘the most extraordinarily happy, if somewhat overwhelming, news I have ever received.’ She was ‘bowled over’ by the number of messages from friends, colleagues and judges expressing delight when the official announcement was made some weeks later. Opposing advocates from hard fought cases were the first to congratulate her at the Old Bailey.  

It had been an extremely unusual start to her time as a QC due to implications of the COVID-19 pandemic. She had a case remotely ‘at’ the Old Bailey later on the day the Skype interview for this profile took place in May 2020. Whilst the new ways of working were challenging they were also ‘something of a leveller’: the judge, counsel, police, the accused, witnesses and court officials all faced similar challenges. However, Heidi was concerned about the potential longer-term impacts on jury trials and regressive impacts on access to the criminal Bar as a career

Heidi was delighted that it had been possible for the QC Ceremony in Westminster Hall to go ahead just before the first ‘lockdown’. She was accompanied by her partner, her two closest friends and her clerk, who never normally got to attend these sorts of occasions. Heidi said that applying for silk was ‘the best decision I ever made’.