In The Big Question: Should we abolish Queen’s Counsel? the Independent gives a lot of information on the phenomenon. Fiona Woolf, the new president of the Law Society (which represents solicitors) has suggested replacing the QC qualification with qualifications for specialist lawyers – rather like the German Fachanwalt.
bq. The rank of Queen’s Counsel dates back over 400 years. The very first person to attain the rank was Francis Bacon, appointed by Elizabeth I in 1594 as a political manoeuvre to prevent him acting against the Crown.
This means that the first QCs really were QCs, not KCs!
bq. The Office of Fair Trading investigated the legal professions in 2001. It concluded that the rank of QC offered the consumer “questionable value” because it permitted barristers to double their earnings overnight. Some barristers are known to even tell their clerks to treble their earnings as soon as the “silk” letter drops through their letter box.
QCs are allowed to wear gowns made of silk. They aren’t always silk, though. The Wikipedia article has two pictures. One shows Cherie Blair in a full-bottomed wig – as it says, this is ceremonial dress, not everyday dress. The other shows Robert McCall KC in the standard outfit.
bq. [The QC] also replaces the black stuff gown of a junior barrister with a black silk gown, although cheaper variants are also worn, including gowns of the same cut but all wool, or in a silk-wool mix, or in artificial silk. The all wool gown is, strictly speaking, a mourning gown, and it is not permitted to wear this variant before the Court of Appeal, the House of Lords, or on ceremonial occasions (as to which, see below), except during a period of official mourning, which is rare. The female Queen’s Counsel wears the same silk gown, wig and bands as her male colleagues.