Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Our Learned Friends Up North

The Bar Barometer published in 2014 showed that there were 12,680 self-employed barristers in independent practice in England and Wales. Of those, 2156 practised in the North of England, on the North and North Eastern Circuits. 

This year a barrister practising in London applying for silk was two and a half times more likely to be successful than a barrister from the North.

The QC Appointments Commission has kindly provided me with a breakdown of  QC applications for the 2017 competition by area:

Table by Area 2017


London 48 46 93 187 50%
Midlands 9 7 7 23 30%
North East 5 3 2 10 20%
North West 7 4 3 14 21%
South East 7 6 3 16 19%
South West  2 1 5 8 63%
Wales 3 0 3 6 50%
TOTAL 85 68 119 272 44%
"F/O" means filtered out before interview. "N/R" means not recommended at interview. "R" means that the applicant was recommended at interview (they were appointed).

The combined success rate for Northern barristers was 21%, the success rate for London barristers was 50%.

Approximately 15% of all barristers practise in the North of England but they accounted for only 4% of the QCs appointed.

The national success rate for men was 41%, and for women, 55%. For white applicants it was 45%, and for ethnic minorities, 43%. For solicitors it was 46% compared to the  success rate overall of 44%.

On the face of it therefore the most striking disparity is between applicants from the North and applicants from London. 

I have asked QC Appointments whether the figures are similar for previous years and that information will be forthcoming in due course. It might be that 2017 was an atypical year, but if not, then it strikes me that this disparity should be investigated. There might be good reasons for it or there may be some biases in the system that can be examined and corrected. Whatever the explanations, there might well be lessons to learn for the Bar Council, for QC Appointments and for us learned friends up North. 


The post above was picked up by Legal Cheek and some of the comments there showed a misunderstanding of the concern. It was not about the disparity in absolute numbers of barristers being appointed QC from London and the North, but the success rates.

QC Appointments has now very kindly obtained and provided to me information showing corresponding success rates for the previous three years: 2014-15, 2015-16 and 206-17. They show that the disparity in 2017 was unusually large.

Indeed in 2014-15 there was in fact a higher success rate for barristers in the North West compared with those in London. According to QC Appointments 8 out of 14 applicants from the North West were successful that year (57%) compared with only 39% of barristers from London. That, however, seems to be an exceptional year.

Taking the last three years together the success rate for London barristers has been 49% compared with 31% for those in the North (the North West and North East combined).  The success rates were as follows:

                                London                       North

2015- 16                  51%                            40%

2016-17                   46%                            36%

2017                        50%                            21%

If about 19% of barristers in England and Wales practise in the North, it is of note that only 9% of silk applicants over the past four years are from the North (89 out of 985). This does not suggest that the reason for the lower success rates is down to too many barristers applying. Rather, Northern barristers seem to be more reluctant to apply and then less successful when they do apply. Perhaps they are more reluctant because of the lower chances of being appointed.

Feedback from the post has highlighted a number of issues which might adversely affect the chances of success for applicants from the North.

Take two commercial barristers, one in Manchester, one in London. Each has twelve significant cases of similar value and complexity to include on their application forms. It has been put to me that the barrister in Manchester will tend to have appeared in front of the same two or three judges in those twelve cases, whereas the London barrister will be more likely to have appeared in front of more judges. That makes it more difficult for the Manchester practitioner to include more referees on the application form. 
In the same example, the Manchester barrister is more likely to have appeared in front of Deputy High Court Judges for the significant cases, and the London barrister is more likely to have appeared in the RCJ in front of full timers. Again, that will be reflected in a better looking application form.
In those cases where value is affected by property prices, the case will tend to have a higher value in London than in the North. 
So many of the institutions of the bar and the law are in London that the opportunities for making an impression  out of court are greater there. 
Are these the sort of factors that are taken into account when determining whether a barrister is truly excellent in the "competencies" that have to be demonstrated for recommendation and appointment? 

I am very grateful to QC appointments for providing the information particularly when it is busy with its primary function of running the annual competition. However, I think it is important to keep an eye on the outcomes of the process, and to be alert to possible unconscious biases within the system.

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