QC status should be available to all advocates appearing in the higher courts, whether or not they are barristers or solicitors, the Legal Services Consumer Panel has said.
It also reiterated its call for re-accreditation and ongoing competence checks for those with the mark.
Chartered legal executives, costs lawyers, and patent and trade mark attorneys currently have limited rights of audience in the higher courts.
Elisabeth Davies, chair of the panel, described diversity amongst QCs as “generally poor, although this is improving” and said “broadening eligibility should create a larger pool of talent to draw upon”.
Responding to a consultation by QC Appointments, Ms Davies said she was “disappointed by the currently very low numbers of solicitor advocates” who become QCs.
“One area which may put off applicants is the fee, which, at £2,160 to apply and a further £3,600 if appointed, could prove prohibitive for some.
“We note the selection panel would like to hear from potential applicants who have decided not to apply due to the fee, but again it seems that more action could be taken to address this.
“Broadening eligibility to include other lawyers will only be worthwhile if the best quality lawyers are successfully encouraged to apply. It is vital that lawyers reflect the population they serve in order to underpin confidence in the profession.”
Ms Davies said the consumer panel had assessed the QC scheme twice, in 2011 and 2014, and it scored poorly both times in areas including re-accreditation, disciplinary sanctions, information for consumers and complaints procedures.
“It is imperative, in our view, that changes are made to ensure some form of re-accreditation and ongoing competence checks,” she said.
“Skills can deteriorate over time and consumers legitimately expect a quality scheme to carry out regular checks to ensure members demonstrate a high level of competence throughout their membership of the scheme and not only when they join. The fact that silks undertake highly complex work only strengthens this argument.”
Ms Davies said the panel did not accept the assertion that the QC system was “more than a mere accreditation scheme”.
She went on: “Without being sure that QCs continue to provide a better-quality service than other advocates, judges cannot, and indeed should not, be expected to rely upon them more than on any other advocate.
“This is only exacerbated by the fact that it is almost impossible to remove the title once granted.
“In summary, we support extending eligibility to be appointed QC to a larger group of lawyers, but this needs to be seen in the context of broader improvements which need to be made to the scheme design before consumers can be expected to have confidence in it.”