Lawyers left stunned after ex-Supreme Sumption tells cancer sufferer her life is ‘less valuable’ on national TV

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By Aishah Hussain on

Former top judge insists comment was taken out of context

Lord Sumption appearing on BBC’s The Big Questions over the weekend

Several prominent lawyers have come out on Twitter slamming ex-Supreme Court justice Lord Sumption after appearing to tell a stage four bowel cancer sufferer that her life was “less valuable” than others during a televised debate on the coronavirus lockdowns over the weekend.

Sumption, 72, made the comment to Deborah James, 39, during BBC’s The Big Questions yesterday morning. The former top judge insists the comment was taken out of context.

It was questioned during the televised debate whether the coronavirus lockdown is “punishing too many for the greater good”, to which Sumption said he did not accept that “all lives are of equal value”.

The ex-Supreme, who served on the UK’s top bench from 2012 until his retirement in 2018, went on to say he believed his children’s and grandchildren’s lives were worth more than his “because they’ve got a lot more of it ahead”.

In response to Sumption’s remarks, James, a podcaster who has stage four metastatic bowel cancer, said: “With all due respect, I am the person who you say their life is not valuable.”

Sumption interjected, saying, “I didn’t say it was not valuable, I said it was less valuable.”

His comments were widely condemned online, with Doughty Street Chambers human rights barrister Adam Wagner describing them as “inhumane, almost grotesque”. He added: “Where there are scarce resources (e.g. donor organs) you do have to have these horrific debates about who gets priority. But to use the argument that some people’s lives are ‘more valuable’ to protect in the context of lockdown versus no lockdown is, I think, extremely problematic.”

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Meanwhile, commercial silk and co-head of Hardwicke Chambers PJ Kirby QC wrote: “Lord Sumption is aware of the importance of language and meaning that will be conveyed. Of course there are always difficult decisions re. priorities and resources. That is not what he said. He said that a cancer sufferer’s life was less valuable than others.”

12 King’s Bench Walk employment and personal injury barrister David Green said: “Lord Sumption is a far cleverer lawyer than I will ever be; but I’d swap every brain-cell in my head to avoid being as horrible as he evidently is.”

Sumption has since insisted his comments were taken out of context.

He told the Mail Online: “I object extremely strongly to any suggestion that I was inferring that Miss James’s life was less valuable because she had cancer.”

He said he thought she was responding to his earlier comments made during the show about harm done to the young through lockdowns designed to protect the elderly from COVID-19.

“If Miss James has misinterpreted that then I can only apologise to her as it was not my intention to suggest she was less valuable,” Sumption continued. “Sometimes on video-links it can be difficult to hear what the other person is saying.”

Lockdown sceptic Sumption has long been critical of the government’s COVID-19 strategy. During an online lecture organised by Cambridge University in the autumn, he accused ministers of deliberately stoking up fear and acting with a “cavalier disregard for the limits of their legal powers”. They had no power to pass lockdown regulations under the Public Health Act, he argued.

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