King’s College London law lecturer compares Lord Sumption to Lord Denning in new research about the Supreme Court judge’s ‘individuality’

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By Katie King on

The paper starts with a Monty Python quote

Senior private law lecturer James Lee has written a research paper on the “judicial individuality” of wild-haired Supreme Court judge Lord Sumption.

The paper begins with this quote from Monty Python’s Life of Brian, in a seeming hat tip to Sumption’s originality:

Brian: Look, you’ve got it all wrong! You don’t need to follow me; you don’t need to follow anybody! You’ve got to think for yourselves! You’re all individuals!
The Crowd: Yes! We’re all individuals!
Brian: You’re all different!
The Crowd: Yes! We are all different!
Man in the Crowd: I’m not.
The Crowd: Ssssssh!

Before long, the King’s College London academic delved into a comparison between commercial law expert Sumption and law student favourite Lord Denning. He said:

[S]umption’s first reported High Court judgment, which was an agricultural holdings case involving a man whose daffodils were ‘a spectacular sight’, even has, dare one say it, a touch of Lord Denning in its introduction… Jonathan Sumption QC’s second reported judgment begins simply: ‘this is a sad story of good intentions and subsequent recriminations’. Similarly, the opening line of one of his first (partial) dissents in the UKSC, on remuneration of a well-paid bank employee, was ‘Mr Geys is a lucky man’. Lord Sumption has thus taken naturally to the judicial art of drawing the reader into the narrative.

Sumption also seems to share Denning’s desire for dissents: he is in the top three justices most likely to stray from majority lines (behind Lords Toulson and Clarke). Lee added:

Where Lord Sumption has dissented, he has done so with gusto, often delving into the historical background to legal principles… His judgment style involves short, punchy sentences and a strident tone.

But it’s not just Denning that Lee is reminded of. The lecturer — who has worked at the universities of Birmingham and Reading — also thinks Sumption has a whiff of Shakespeare about him. Lee continued:

One can even find allusions to Shakespeare in Lord Sumption’s judgments: in the 2017 case of Belhaj v Straw, his Lordship, referring to the work of Dr FA Mann, said ‘the proposition which the High Court of Australia accepted from Dr Mann is tantamount to the abolition of the foreign act of state doctrine. This was indeed a consummation devoutly wished by that great scholar’.

Lee’s piece also includes some interesting data on Sumption’s time on the bench. The Brick Court Chambers barrister turned Supreme Court justice has, Lee says, delivered the highest percentage (30.3%) of lead or joint lead judgments in the cases in which he sat in 2015/16.

For these reasons and others, Lee appears to have no problem concluding that Sumption has made a “considerable impact” in his years on the bench. Lee finished:

Lord Sumption’s workload… and intellectual ambition have made him arguably one of the most influential justices on the UKSC (after the president and deputy president).

This conclusion broadly aligns with research undertaken by Dr Chris Hanretty, a University of East Anglia academic. Hanretty found that Sumption — along with Supreme Court president Lord Neuberger and deputy president Lady Hale — was one of the most “celebrity” justices on the bench, based on mentions in the press.

Read the research in full here:

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