King's Counsel appointments ceremony 2024: Lord Chancellor speech

Lord Chancellor’s speech at the 2024 King’s Counsel appointment ceremony, recognising those who have been formally appointed to the rank of KC and Honorary KC

 The Rt Hon Alex Chalk KC MP

It’s my very great pleasure to be here today to preside over the formal appointment of all those achieving the rank of King’s Counsel, and to welcome our next cohort of Honorary King’s Counsel. My warmest congratulations to you all. For each one of you, this is an enormous personal achievement, and this celebration is richly deserved.

We hold this ceremony in historic surroundings, the very epicentre of our democracy. Over the decades audiences have heard in this hall from statesmen and politicians such as De Gaulle, Mandela, Obama,  Aung San Suu Kyi, Zelenskyy. And now me. I hope you don’t feel too short-changed. Spare a thought for those amongst you who have had the dubious honour of being my opponent in court, or have even acted alongside me in an Oscar Wilde play as an undergraduate in the Brasenose Arts Festival.

Now it is of course no accident that we are in this particular building today. This is the location of our first ever permanent law court – the court of King’s Bench. It was later home to the Court of Common Pleas and the Court of the Chancery.

These walls have witnessed many great trials. King Charles I, William Wallace, Thomas More were all tried here, and it was in this hall that Guy Fawkes was convicted and sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered. Which brings me neatly on to our latest tough on crime policy announcement… 

Now, the title of King’s Counsel has for centuries been a mark of quality, setting apart those who achieve it as the very best of our jurisdiction. The rank signifies the highest regard for legal ability, for diligence, for professionalism and for integrity. And, for our Honorary KCs, it recognises your exceptional contribution to our legal system outside of legal practice.

A word to your supporters. I’ve no doubt that your family, friends and loved ones here today are proud; but more than that, they should know they are responsible too. On top of providing emotional sustenance, I know from my own experience that the long hours, late nights, missed weddings, cancelled weekend trips will have had an impact on them as well. And yet, true to form, it’s this lot getting the glory again… But on their behalf I thank you.

Now today of course is all about exceptional individual achievement, and we should not apologise for that. And let us not forget, in celebrating it, that you are part of something much bigger. Your success is no less than our country’s success. What you’ve achieved, and will continue to achieve, contributes to this jurisdiction, to the kind of country we are, and the kind of country we aspire to be – our standards and our values.

And what you do matters for at least 3 reasons.

First, straightforwardly, your offices and chambers throughout our country are engine rooms of our prosperity. Our legal sector contributed around £34 billion to the British economy in 2022 alone, a figure that continues to grow year on year. More broadly, it underpins so much of our nation’s success, giving businesses the confidence to operate in the knowledge that there are routes to redress should something go wrong.

Second, as a driver of social mobility. Those of you who’ve contributed to the work of the Kalisher Trust for example, or who have taken on mini-pupils from all walks of life, know this sector can and does produce genuinely life-changing opportunities. For young people from modest backgrounds, where they have the talent, dedication and drive to get on, the law can turn lives around – not just for individuals but for future generations too.

And third, because it is this sector – and your quality – that does so much to strengthen our position on the world stage, and allows us exert influence when it matters. In this job I’ve travelled from Japan to the United States; and I can tell you that your abilities mean that our voice in calling for support for the international rules-based order is louder.

And on that subject, we should never overlook the part we played in for example the Hague Conventions which laid the groundwork for a new international system rooted in law and ushered in an era of international co-operation and multilateralism. Nor should we forget our founding role in the organisations that followed, including the United Nations.

Indeed, there is often a quiet diffidence about the contribution of our legal system, which is in some ways commendable; but don’t let’s forget it. As Lord Bingham said, “the British have a history in this field of which they have every reason to be immensely proud”. I agree.

So, every time one of you stays up until 2am putting the finishing touches on an opinion, every time one of you crafts that killer cross-examination, and every time one of you develops that ingenious and compelling argument which makes the court think again, you strengthen your case, you strengthen the legal system, and you strengthen our country.

Now, I’m pleased that this year, on my recommendation and with the support of the selection panel, His Majesty has granted letters patent conferring the title of King’s Counsel on 95 barristers and solicitor-advocates. There are also 5 awards this year for King’s Counsel, Honoris Causa, and I want to take a few moments now to talk about each of them.

First, Professor Anthony Arnull, a specialist in the law of the European Union, nominated for his research of EU law, in particular the role and jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.

Next, Michael Meyer, Head of International Law at the British Red Cross. Michael was nominated for his advice and support to government on international humanitarian law.

Next, Sir Robert Neill, who I’m proud to call a colleague and friend. Bob is an MP and the formidable and forensic Chair of the Commons Justice Select Committee. He was nominated for his role in leading that Committee, which rightly holds Government to account, as I know to my cost.

Next, Professor Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, nominated for her work in advising the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, which has shaped policy and legal work on the protection of social and economic rights and the rule of law.

The final Honorary KC is Professor Norman Doe, nominated for reviving the study of Ecclesiastical Law in England and Wales and for his highly influential publications on the subject.

This is, of course, only the briefest reference to their contributions to the law, which go a great deal further.

But let me close by congratulating all appointees again. You are now the leaders, in more ways than one. Yours is the task to strengthen and uphold the standards and values of this great profession.

Take pride in your achievement – because your profession, and your country, take pride in you. My very best wishes for your continued success. Good luck.

From: Ministry of Justice and The Rt Hon Alex Chalk KC MP