In Praise of the Queen’s Counsel

For many lawyers, December is a month filled with anticipation as most of the provinces announce coveted Queen’s Counsel (QC) appointments prior to Christmas. For federal government lawyers, they waited for an announcement that never came.

In 2013, the Harper government revived the federal QC after a two-decade hiatus. In 2015, the new Trudeau government appears to have quietly abandoned this practice. Or it may simply not have been a priority for a busy new government. Whatever the explanation, if the Trudeau government wants to recognize the value of public service, it should continue the practice of awarding QCs to federal lawyers.

Historically, Queen’s Counsel (or King’s Counsel when the reigning monarch is male) have been awarded in the United Kingdom and some Commonwealth countries to senior members of the bar. In Canada, both the federal government and the provinces have the constitutional authority to award QCs. Perhaps not surprisingly, this issue was decided in 1897 by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council when the federal government challenged upstart Ontario’s power to award QCs. It is so Canadian to have a Privy Council division of powers decision on this issue.

Over the years, there were highs and lows to the Canadian QC. One of the highs was the 1934 appointment of Helen Alice Kinnear as the first female King’s Counsel in the British Empire. The list of QCs and KCs includes many past greats of the Canadian legal profession: John Robinette, Newton Rowell, John Diefenbaker, Louis St. Laurent, Lincoln Alexander and Bora Laskin. I enjoy the idea that Bora Laskin likely received his QC in 1956 at least partially on the strength on his Constitutional Law casebook.[i] Of course, many worthy lawyers never received QCs. And others of questionable merit received their designation more on the basis of service to the party in power than service to the profession. Because of political patronage, some provinces overhauled the process of appointing QCs and others (Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec) abandoned it altogether. The federal government fell into this latter category, abandoning the process altogether in 1993.

The Government of Canada revived the QC in 2013 but decided – rightly in my view – to restrict the award to lawyers who are literally “the Queen’s Counsel”, i.e. federal government lawyers. Minister of Justice Peter MacKay revived the practice in December 2013 on the occasion of the anniversary of the Statute of Westminster and the end of Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Anniversary. In December 2013, Mackay awarded QCs to Simon Fothergill, Deputy Secretary to the Cabinet (Legislation and House Planning, and Machinery of Government) and Counsel, Privy Council Office; Colonel P.K. Gleeson, Deputy Judge Advocate General Operations, Military Justice and Administrative Law, Department of National Defence; Claude Joyal, Senior General Counsel, (Quebec Regional Office), Department of Justice; Urszula Kaczmarczyk, Senior General Counsel, Ontario Regional Office, Department of Justice; Sandra Phillips, Associate Assistant Deputy Attorney General for Tax Assessments; Donald K. Piragoff, Senior Assistant Deputy Minister, Department of Justice; Brian J. Saunders, Director of the Public Prosecution Service of Canada. In December 2014, seven federal lawyers were awarded the Q.C. designation: Robert Frater, Senior General Counsel with the Office of the Assistant Deputy Attorney General of Canada; Colonel Vihar Joshi, Deputy Judge Advocate General in the Canadian Armed Forces; Guy Laurin, Senior General Counsel, Legislative Services with the Department of Justice; Liliana Pecorilli-Longo, Senior General Counsel with the Department of Justice’s Legal Services for the RCMP; Croft Michaelson, Senior General Counsel, Ontario Regional Office of the Public Prosecution Service of Canada; and William Pentney, Deputy Attorney General of Canada and Deputy Minister of Justice of Canada.

I am privileged to know several of these lawyers and they rank amongst the best legal minds and talents in the country. However, you won’t find their names listed in any directories of top lawyers in their field. Neither will you find a single government lawyer listed among Lexpert’s Rising Stars. Government lawyers are the Rodney Dangerfield of the legal profession: they get no respect. However, as I have written elsewhere, government lawyers are important and underappreciated members of the legal profession and of our justice system.

There was much to criticize in the Harper government’s justice policy and in the job that Peter MacKay did as Attorney General and Minister of Justice of Canada. Prime Minister Harper and the PMO often sidelined the professional legal advisers in the Department of Justice. Minister of Justice Peter Mackay proved all too often unable or unwilling to stand up for the Constitution and the rule of law. However, these are not reasons to abandon the public recognition of government lawyers that begun under Tory stewardship. Ultimately, awarding federal QCs to deserving federal government lawyers is in the interests of the public service, the Department of Justice, the legal profession and of the government of the day.


[i] Philip Girard, Bora Laskin: Bringing Law to Life (Toronto: Osgoode Society for Canadian Legal History, 2005) 180.


  1. I couldn’t agree with you more. During my career with Justice Canada I had the opportunity of getting to know many of the individuals to whom you have referred. They, and many more equally deserving government lawyers, are some of the brightest, most hard working and honourable members of the legal profession in this country. It was privilege and a joy to work with each and every one of them.

  2. Why should the government give an award to lawyers that is not available to the members of any other profession, when it does not give awards to other professions? It gives the Order of Canada to people in all walks of life, including lawyers. Why isn’t that enough? Many if not most provinces have a provincial equivalent to the Order of Canada.

    The law societies and bar associations also have their awards of merit – usually given in very small numbers, appropriately enough – far smaller numbers than those of QCs in most places.

    The legal profession just about dislocates its shoulder patting itself on the back for its independence from government, except when its members are sucking up to politicians to get QCs. It’s unseemly. I recognize that this remark does not apply to the appointment of in-house government counsel, and those of the federal appointees I know are definitely the top of their class. But why this archaic and widely discredited designation? (Complaints about the appointment process can be found even in 19th century Canadian legal publications.)

    I too am a fan of government lawyers – I work and have worked with a lot of them and have frequently been impressed by their talent and dedication. But governments also have their recognition processes – certainly Ontario has more than one government-wide award and most if not all ministries have their own – available to lawyers and others. So talent can be recognized internally by the employer (and colleagues, in a peer-run system) and externally by the Bar itself.

    If the designation had not existed, no one would dream of creating it today. After 20 years of disuse federally, it was a mistake to recreate it, and that mistake can now be corrected by pure and free inertia.

  3. I disagree that the Q.C. designation should be reserved for government lawyers.

    Section 2 of the Barristers Act allows for these appointments provincially as well, though this practice has fell into disuse with the creation of the C.S. designation by LSUC.

    However, section 3(2) of the same Act still provides for Order of Precedence to those holding the Q.C. designation.

    The effect of the proposal found above would be to allow only these government lawyers who hold the designation to enjoy the privilege of precedence, even above and beyond lawyers in private practice with greater seniority and greater experience who simply don’t have the designation (s. 3(4)). That, in my humble submission, would be an absurd result.

    There is enormous amount of public service that members of the bar engage in, and although the Q.C. designation has been shunned of late as being simply a vestige of political patronage, I’m not entirely averse to the concept of recognizing our largely unsung efforts. But those efforts are certainly not limited to the bar serving the Crown.

  4. I have often wondered how does one object to some of the award of silk. So often in my province the awardees are truly unsuited and un-deserving. Public service did you say?

  5. I cannot comment on QC designation and award matter since I am not a lawyer.

    But as a former law librarian, who worked for provincial Ontario govn’t organization, the Ontario courts and also a major global accounting firm, my thoughts on a commenter’s excerpted remark:

    “Neither will you find a single government lawyer listed among Lexpert’s Rising Stars. Government lawyers are the Rodney Dangerfield of the legal profession: they get no respect. However, as I have written elsewhere, government lawyers are important and underappreciated members of the legal profession and of our justice system.”

    Government lawyers bring to the table, incredible knowledge on their govn’t’s legislation. They are the ones who are directly involved in drafting law and providing interpretation for govn’t senior management and govn’t employee subject matter specialists. No doubt, any experienced law librarian knows and has a direct route to key govn’t lawyers for whom they provide reference for their corporate lawyers / other professionals on interpretation/application of legislative clauses, etc.

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