The Attorney General maintains four panels of junior counsel to undertake civil and EU work for all Government departments. There are three London Panels (A, B and C) and a Regional Panel. Membership of the Panels is open to both barristers and solicitors with the necessary qualifications. It is worth noting that, unlike some other public sector frameworks, membership is open to individuals rather than to their chambers or their firm. I am proud of the work done in recent years by the current and previous Law Officers in increasing the number of chambers who have members on the panels. Membership is certainly not limited to a few privileged sets.
I am also pleased to see that over recent years the number of women on these Panels has increased markedly. In 2008 there were only 10 women on the A Panel. After the 2012 competition this had increased to 25. 39% of the A Panel, 33% of the B Panel and 48% of the C Panel is now made up of women.
Despite this, I was disappointed that more women did not apply for the A Panel in the last competition. There were only 8 out of 43 applications. It is true that a number of B Panellists, who might otherwise have been seeking appointment to the A Panel, had been granted extensions to their B Panel appointments but I would not want to see this dip in applications by women repeated. The Panels are a well-travelled road to further success in the law and I would like to see further improvement in diversity at the highest levels.
Being a Panel member gives advocates exposure to some of the most important and high profile cases of the day. Many of these are cases which, by their nature, are not susceptible to a purely commercial settlement and are of such importance that they will go to the Supreme Court and to Europe. Membership of the panels therefore gives exposure to cases of great public interest and legal complexity. A Panellists will often appear against QCs. The exposure to the high quality legal work on the Panels can in due course assist in preparing applications for Silk and judicial appointment.
To appear as an advocate on behalf of the Crown is a great privilege and as such appointment is on the basis of merit, through fair and open competition.
Broadly speaking the A Panel is open to barristers with over 10 years of advocacy experience. B Panel is open to barristers with over 5 years’ experience and C Panel for those with between 2 and 5 years’ experience. However apart from the requirement to have at least two years’ advocacy experience, these are guidelines rather than strict criteria. An application should be made for whichever Panel the applicant considers best suited to his or her abilities and experience.
The Panel system means that whether junior counsel are acting for the Government in relation to an inquiry into phone hacking, a judicial review against a planning decision, a claim for defective construction of a motorway, an injunction against a newspaper, or indeed any other aspect of contentious and non contentious legal work for which advocates are needed, then the advocate selected will be a member of one of the Attorney General’s Civil Panels.
Earlier this year 84 barristers were appointed Queen’s Counsel. Of those, 59 could be categorised as having a purely civil practice and of those 59, 13 (approximately 22%) were current members of the London or Regional Panel. In addition a number of former panellists were also successful.
The numbers on the London Panels are currently as follows:
A Panel – 64
B Panel – 104
C Panel – 115
Appointments to the Panels are for 5 years, so, in London, roughly speaking 20% of the places are open every year. This means there are plenty of opportunities for those wishing to appear on behalf of the Crown.
Members of the Panel come from a wide range of chambers. As at 1 March 2013 there were 74 different sets of chambers with London Panel counsel. The A Panel consists of barristers from 26 different sets of chambers, the B Panel from 49 different sets, and the C Panel from 47 different sets.
Although appointments to the Panel are made for 5 years, it is possible to extend this period. This can be particularly advantageous for female advocates in that the most common reason for extension is maternity leave. Such counsel are therefore not disadvantaged when it comes to making future applications. Additional time on the Panel allows time to undertake further advocacy work that will strengthen an application to the A or B Panels.
Panel work can accommodate flexible working patterns. Instructing Government lawyers, many of whom have similar arrangements, are used to instructing advocates who have varied work patterns.
Although appointment to any Panel cannot guarantee that work will be available, the intention is that each advocate appointed should be given at least a minimum amount of work. If Panel members want more work, either because they feel they are being overlooked or because a trial has collapsed and they are unexpectedly free, then their clerks can contact the Treasury Solicitor’s Department.
In the light of these benefits, it is a pity that more women did not apply.
Women are joining the Bar in increasing numbers and it is important that they remain in practice to take silk and judicial office in due course. Membership of the Attorney General’s Panel can undoubtedly assist in that. A large number of our senior judiciary have done Government work in the past either as one of the two First Treasury Counsel, or as a member of the London or Regional Panel or their predecessor, the so-called “Supplementary List”.
These include for example, from the Court of Appeal: Lord Justice Richards, Lord Justice Laws and Lord Justice Moses; and from the High Court Bench: Mr Justice Burnett, Mr Justice Collins, Mr Justice Charles and Mr Justice Sales. Many current Panel members also sit as Recorders.
A competition in relation to the London Panels is held in October/November each year and there is a competition for the Regional Panel every 2 to 3 years. The next competition for regions outside London is likely to be in 2015.
The Treasury Solicitor’s Department has run “widening the pool” events prior to the opening of the competition every year since 2006. The aim is to encourage applications from the widest possible range of those who are eligible to apply. The Law Officers believe that in casting their net as widely as possible, they are able to catch the best new Panel members.
There is a mentoring scheme to put lawyers who want to discuss the application process in touch with an established Panel member. The mentoring scheme also extends to the first 6 months in practice on the Panel.
The work of the Panels is not limited to public law. It is important that the Panels contain counsel with various specialisms and that counsel are also able to branch out into new areas of work if the need arises. We fully encourage counsel to maintain both a public and private practice; this includes acting against Government.
It is not necessary to have been on the C Panel previously in order to be appointed to the A or B Panels. Appointment is based on merit and each year we appoint some candidates who are not currently on the Panels.
I urge those practising in London and the south east – and particularly women – to consider applying for the London Panel when the next competition is announced later this year.
Oliver Heald QC MP Solicitor General