Letters patent for the uninventive

great sealPatents, formerly known as letters patent, are granted for inventions that (in summary) are new, have an inventive step, are capable of industrial application, and are not in any excluded category.

In the UK, the older name, letters patent, refers to the fact that they were originally awarded by means of a published, rather than private, letter from the monarch, to which the Great Seal had been applied. Note the Norman French usage of placing the adjective after the noun, which also survives in a few other legal expressions such as Attorney General and corporation sole.

Although it is no longer the method of grant for modern patents for inventions, Her Majesty the Queen continues to award letters patent in other contexts, including the appointment of diplomatic and other representatives of the Crown. Last week, the latest batch of appointments as Queen’s Counsel were announced. 115 appointments were made, including 5 appointments for intellectual property barristers.

In fact, these appointments will not take effect until 22 February, when they are announced in the London Gazette. On the same date, the new QCs will receive their letters patent at a ceremony at Westminster Hall, in the same room where Charles I was sentenced to death in 1649, in Britain’s brief flirtation with republicanism.

For centuries, the London Gazette has been the definitive source of information about State business. Nowadays, it is available online. Here, for example, (and reproduced below) is the announcement of the appointment of Nelson Mandela as an honorary QC in 2000.

Crown Office

House of Lords, London SW1A 0PW

3rd May 2000

The Queen has been pleased by Letters Patent under the Great Seal dated 3rd May 2000 to appoint Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, Esquire; David Eryl Corbet Yale, Esquire; Roger Grahame Hood, Esquire, C.B.E. and Paul Philip Craig, Esquire; to be Her Majesty’s Counsel learned in the Law honoris causa.
C. I. P. Denyer

An appointment as a QC continues until superseded by another Royal appointment (eg as a High Court judge) or, in extremely rare cases, it is revoked. Here (relevant text reproduced below) is the London Gazette for the 11 December 1874:

The Queen has by Letters Patent under the Great Seal of the United Kingdom determined the Letters Patent whereby Edward Vaughan Kenealy, Esq., was appointed one of Her Majesty’s Counsel learned in the Law, and removed and discharged him from the said office.

london gazette 1874Edward Kenealy QC (as he then was) was counsel for the Titchbourne claimant in a notorious trial that was the longest in English legal history. His client had brought a civil action in which he claimed to be the heir to a baronetcy and the associated estates. This civil claim failed and his client was charged with perjury. In the subsequent criminal trial, the prosecution introduced 215 witnesses and the trial lasted 188 court days. It took the jury 30 minutes to decide that the defendant was not who he said he was. He was sentenced to a prison term of 7 years. Both the judge, in summing up, and the jury, made comments condemning Kenealy’s confrontational behaviour in the trial.

The story was made into a film in 1998, with a stellar cast including John Geilgud and Stephen Fry.




Filed under Legal practice

2 responses to “Letters patent for the uninventive

  1. Chris Beck

    Interesting. I didn’t know QCs were also honorary appointments.

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