Some of the stupidest people I have come across are lawyers. Pompous windbags with no common sense usually photographed smiling smugly in front of shelves of law books they’ve never read. In the legal profession as a whole they are the exception, most lawyers are hard working, talented and in the job for the right reasons. For every clueless numpty there are ten skilled practitioners doing their best by their client. There is, however, only one Jonathan Sumption.
Sumption has been called “the cleverest person in Britain”. I usually treat such claims with suspicion ever since George Michael boasted he was “Britain’s best songwriter”. Now I love the poetic beauty of Club Tropicana, that ode to last minute holiday bookers who couldn’t get a beachfront hotel – “all that’s missing is the sea….but don’t worry you can suntan”- but I suspect he was probably off his head and about to drive his car into a corner shop when he made the claim. In Jonathan Sumption’s case it may well be true.
To say that Sumption is bright is not really doing him justice, a cruel irony for a member of the Supreme Court. The best QC of his generation he was the first person since 1949 to be appointed a lawlord without having first served as a judge. That was a great decision because it fast-tracked a brilliant mind to the highest court in the land while simultaneously peeing off a load of judges. Sumption is a high achiever, his CV has an epilogue. He was the outstanding barrister of his era, the “go to” QC for commercial litigants and government alike. Alistair Campbell secured him for the Hutton Inquiry and in his diaries he claimed that Sumption had “a brain the size of the planet”, an impressive tribute coming from a man who worked regularly with John Prescott.
When he’s not practising law, and when Mrs Sumption is at the bingo, Jonathan fills his spare time writing a five volume history of the 100 Years War. Now I’m going through a divorce, so I know what 100 years of war must feel like, but I certainly wouldn’t begin to be able to write about it. Sumption’s work on the subject has been lavishly praised by critics and described as “definitive”. The War was in reality a series of wars between Britain and France and they actually lasted 116 years but a five volume history entitled “ A Number of Wars the combined length of which was about 116 years” wouldn’t have had anywhere near the same impact on the public imagination.
So, he’s Britain’s brightest legal mind and our greatest medieval historian but do you know what I like best about Sumption? He’s not afraid to admit that he’s in it for the money. In 2001 he wrote to the Guardian referring to his annual earnings of £1.6 million as “puny”. I’m not sure what’s more amusing – the use of the word “puny” to describe an income of £1.6 million or the fact he thought he would attract any sympathy from Guardian readers.
Sumption’s biggest pay day was his last case as a barrister. In 2012 he received a reported £10m for representing billionaire oligarch Roman Abramovich against his nemesis Boris Berezovsky in a claim arising out of the acquisition of Russian oil fields in the 1990s. The case, which he won, delayed Sumption taking up his role at the Supreme Court. It was the cause of some controversy as Sumption would only accept the post on the understanding that he could finish the Abramovich case. This lead to accusations that he was insulting the judiciary and was even in contempt of court. Sumption responded to the allegations by rubbing his £10m cheque between the fingers of the left hand while doing a “whassssupppp” with the right.
If you were one of those who thought Sumption’s behaviour was contemptuous or insulting then Lord knows what you’d have made of the MOJ and their recent conduct over court fees.
In March 2015 the MOJ introduced a massive increase in court fees which meant that in all money claims over £10,000 the cost of bringing a claim was set at 5% of the value of the claim up to a maximum of £10,000. It meant that, for example , in one case a pensioner who was claiming against a financial adviser for the loss of his hard earned savings of £100,000 had to pay a court fee of £5000 instead of £910, an increase of over 500%. Such an astonishing increase could only have the effect of reducing access the justice, not just for pensioners or injured people but small to medium businesses whose abilty to recover a substantial debt might be the difference between survival and closure. The increases were met with vehement opposition across all branches of the legal profession and widely condemned as unfair.
Things had to change so in July 2015 the MOJ made a further announcement. They’d looked at the issue of court fees and admitted they’d got it wrong. The fees weren’t high enough! A whole new raft of increases were proposed including an increase in the maximum issue fee to £20,000. A figure so large that were it a brief fee it might even tempt Jonathan Sumption out of bed.
The principle used to be that civil litigation pays for itself and that court fees should cover the cost of using the court system. These hefty increases in court fees should presumably have heralded in a era of brand spanking new court buildings with well paid staff using the latest software to bring justice to the masses. Instead the MOJ announced that 91 courts are to close with no increase in resources for the remainder. Hard pressed judges are being asked to cope with outdated IT systems and do a lot more with a lot less. Justice delayed,or even abandoned, is the inevitable result. The principle of cost neutrality has gone and claimants, be they brain injured children or dying asbestos victims, are to be milked for every penny the MOJ can get away with. Economics before fairness, profit trumps justice.
Some held out a hope that a court fee consultation announced by the MOJ at the same time of the proposed fee rises would result in a change of policy. If you were one of those people then I have a bag of magic beans that you may well be interested in taking off my hands for a tidy sum. Despite the “consultation” finding that 92% were opposed to the fee hike the MOJ are ploughing on regardless. Maybe Sumption represented the other 8%.
These unjustified fee increases are just the latest attack by the MOJ on access to justice following on from their savage cuts to the legal aid budget. Not everything is broken but I would caution against clinging to the romantic notion that we have a legal system that is the envy of the world. Remember that “wise guys realise there’s dangers in emotional ties” – someone should’ve written a song about it.