5 July 2009

Exclusive! Not all barristers are 'top'!

The “Top barrister” or the “Leading QC” is one of the British media’s staple characters. In Scotland, our local equivalent is the “Top Advocate”, who if (usually) he keeps his nose clean, can anticipate becoming a “Top QC” in twenty years or so. The press continue to talk about these courtly customers as if justice was simply a perpetual re-run of Oscar Wilde in the dock, being ravaged with a rhetorical vengeance by an axe-faced Edward Carson. The Bar becoming a surviving bastion of a fusty, moth-gnawed British Victoriana, decked out in its burlesquing wigs and duds. Replete with ludicrous, outré strutting and fawning, its human faces are the fixed masks of performance and are by turns laughable and grotesque.

Although the Shakespearean lynching refrain undoubtedly persists, so too the swaggering status construction and mystification of the Bar and its Barristers lingers. This costume and facepaint application occurs in strange places. Take Bridget Jones’s Diary and its “brilliant barrister” apologetic for the egregious Mark Darcy. As anyone who spares so much as glance underneath the veil of these middle-class press puffings will recognise, the prevalence of “topness” in the “fraternity” of the Bar presents one with something of an accounting difficulty. Who has ever heard the Scotsman style one of their interlocutors a “bottom end” Queen’s Counsel, or for balance, talk about the inarticulate, stumbling, slugwitted litigators? Professional courtesy aside, and a certain laudable desire not to needlessly humiliate the untalented considered, we’d be misunderstanding things if we take this unalloyed positivity about “top QCs” as simply a factor of newspapers’ super friendliness.

While we may smell in their ink the lank reek of fawning intellectual deference, it is simply a fact that in the press world, all barristers are top. That this classification inevitably results in no bottom, and tends to mislead the public and distort competition is naturally of little interest. The press reasons are quite straightforward. The characteristic of topness is glued firmly to the seniority associated with Queen’s Counseldom. Who are the bottom QCs? The answer is that there are none, by definition. And thus, swaddled in mystique, with a good splash of mutual regard dousing all competitors, the status of all is elevated. Its the worst sort of superstition, and the spiritualisation of those two magical letters "QC" must be resisted at all costs.Helpfully, this can be easily arranged by simply listing just one of these headily top QCs who has defied the constraints of lay mediocrity and achieved ministerial mediocrity: Harriet Harman. After which, I trust that no fond delusions remain undisturbed.

Why this excursion into advocacy, you might well enquire. Partly, I’m curious to speculate about quite what one of Scotland’s “top QCs” is up to at the moment. Paul McBride claimed to have been a “life-long” Labour voter, but now seems to be making a strong pitch for the Scottish Conservatives and taking a pitchfork to the Human Rights Act 1998 at their last conference. Given McBride’s preference for criminal defence work, one wonders if this last gambit is a terrifically wise move. In particular, if you were a judge, how seriously would you take a submission that McBride’s client's human rights had been abused from a man who called the 1998 Act “discredited”? Obviously, having a lancing, impartial, former-top-QC’s-mind, you’d look to the justice of the thing, and not hold the accused’s representative against him or her. Now, McBride is taking time away from poring over his legal documents – as only one of Scotland’s leading QC can – to scribble up articles for the Scotman on sentencing policy. Not, I should stress, that I object to lawyers doing this kind of thing at all. However, there is certainly a sudden and heightened pattern in McBride’s press-telly outings which might imply he’s bored of law, and wants a cosier, political billet with the Scots Tories. After all, folk change their political stripes quite often. Not everybody is so fat with self importance and self regard that they feel compelled to inform the country’s media outlets of this change of mind. Man changes Party is not a headline. That the newspapers grovel in this fashion simply because that man happens to be a poxy lawyer is pathetic.


  1. Couple of mistakes Mr Worrier: "Queen's Councildom"? Also, McBride probably "pores over" legal documents.

    Anyway, good point. The mystique surrounding QC-dom is a bit misleading. I am a mere whippersnapper in the profession and I've noticed a spectrum, even among the Hallowed Silks, where some are noticeably better than others. It seems no accolade is truly exceptional! The only way to stand apart is to become Lord Justice General, perhaps (and even that doesn't guarantee deference as evidenced in your commentary on Art's performance down at the Parliament).

    What to do?!

  2. Egad! A poor show, I admit. I've engaged in a spot of digital retouching - or blogging doublethink - to ensure that I never made the ... er ... errors you noticed.

  3. Ah Lallands, interesting observation. One of my reader knows Mr McBride rather well. I did a post some time ago in which he was mentioned and the comments were, to say the very least, non-favourable. I shall dig around my archive later and post his comments.