History of Queen's Counsel

Dr Donald Stevens being called to the Inner Bar at the High Court at Wellington on 19 June 2002

Queen’s Counsel have been appointed for the last 400 years.

Sir Francis Bacon was the first lawyer to become counsel to the Sovereign. He was appointed in 1596 during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.

By the last part of the 16th century it had become apparent that the Queen’s Attorney and the Queen’s Solicitor (the forerunners of the Law Officers of the Crown) were unable by themselves to perform all the duties that their offices imposed on them. As a result counsel who became known as Queen’s Counsel were appointed to give assistance and advice to the Law Officers of the Crown. They were often consulted in capital cases and in cases of state. Queen’s Counsel were at that time expected to become advocates on behalf of the Sovereign. During the reign of a king they were called King’s Counsel.

By the beginning of the 17th century King’s Counsel were appointed directly by the Crown and the rank became an established order in the legal profession.

During the 18th century King’s Counsel came to be regarded as a class of counsel who had been given a rank superior to that of ordinary counsel. By this time appointees had ceased to perform the functions for which the office had originally been created. Appointment has, since the reign of King William IV, been seen as a mark of recognition for the leading counsel of the day.

The first appointment in New Zealand was made in 1907.

Annually the Governor-General, acting on behalf of the Queen, appoints Queen’s Counsel for New Zealand on the recommendation of the Attorney-General and with the concurrence of the Chief Justice of New Zealand. Soon afterwards the newly appointed Silk (a term derived from the silk gown worn by Queen’s Counsel) is called to the Inner Bar in a ceremony in the High Court.