Jonathan Sumption, Lord Sumption

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Jonathan Philip Chadwick Sumption, Lord Sumption, OBE, PC, FSA, FRHistS (born 9 December 1948), is a British author, medieval historian and former senior judge who sat on the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom between 2012 and 2018.

Lord Sumption

Lord Sumption 2013.jpg
Justice of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom
In office
11 January 2012 – 9 December 2018
Nominated byKenneth Clarke
MonarchElizabeth II
Preceded byThe Lord Collins of Mapesbury
Succeeded byThe Lord Sales
Non-Permanent Judge of the Court of Final Appeal of Hong Kong
Assumed office
18 December 2019
Appointed byCarrie Lam
Personal details
Born (1948-12-09) 9 December 1948 (age 72)
Spouse(s)Teresa Sumption, née Whelan
Children2 daughters; 1 son
ResidenceLondon, England
EducationEton College
Alma materMagdalen College, Oxford
OccupationBarrister; judge
Chinese name
OBE ribbon

Sumption was sworn in as a Justice of the Supreme Court on 11 January 2012, succeeding Lawrence Collins, Baron Collins of Mapesbury.[1] Exceptionally, he was appointed to the Supreme Court directly from the practising Bar, without having been a full-time judge. He retired from the Supreme Court on 9 December 2018 upon reaching the mandatory retirement age of 70.

Sumption is well known for his role as a barrister in many legal cases. They include appearances in the Hutton Inquiry on HM Government's behalf,[2] in the Three Rivers case,[3] his representation of former Cabinet Minister Stephen Byers and the Department for Transport in the Railtrack private shareholders' action against the British Government in 2005,[4] for defending HM Government in an appeal hearing brought by Binyam Mohamed,[5] and for successfully defending Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich in a private lawsuit brought by Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky.[6]

A former academic, Sumption was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the 2003 New Year Honours[7] and is also known for writing a substantial narrative history of the Hundred Years' War, so far in four volumes. Sumption has been elected a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society (FRHistS) and a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London (FSA).

Early life and educationEdit

Sumption is the elder son of Anthony Sumption,[8] a decorated naval officer and barrister, and Hilda Hedigan; their marriage was dissolved in 1979.[9] He was educated at Eton College and Magdalen College, Oxford, graduating in 1970 with a first in History.[10][11] He was elected a fellow of Magdalen College, teaching and writing books on medieval history before leaving to pursue a career in law.[10] Called to the Bar at the Inner Temple in 1975, he then pursued a successful legal practice in commercial law.

In the 1970s, Sumption served as an adviser to the Conservative MP and Cabinet Minister Sir Keith Joseph.[12][13] Sumption and Joseph co-wrote a 1979 book, Equality, seeking to show that "no convincing arguments for an equal society have ever been advanced" and that "no such society has ever been successfully created".[13] In the late 1970s Sumption was a regular contributor to The Sunday Telegraph.

Legal careerEdit

Sumption was appointed Queen's Counsel (QC) in 1986 at the relatively young age of 38, and elected a Bencher of the Inner Temple in 1991. He has served as a Deputy High Court Judge in the Chancery Division, and a Judge of the Court of Appeal of Jersey[14] and the Guernsey Court of Appeal.

He was a member of the Judicial Appointments Commission, until his appointment to the Supreme Court. Sumption was joint head of Brick Court Chambers.[4]

On 30 November 2007, when a practising barrister, Sumption successfully represented himself before Mr Justice Collinsin a judicial review application in the Administrative Court concerning proposed development near his home at Greenwich.[15]

Earnings as a barristerEdit

The Guardian once described him as being a member of the "million-a-year club", the elite group of barristers earning over a million pounds a year.[16][10] In a letter to The Guardian in 2001, he compared his "puny £1.6 million a year" to the vastly larger amounts that comparable individuals in business, sports and entertainment are paid.[16]

For a four-week trial (and all the preparatory work) in the UK in 2005 he charged £800,000 to represent HM Government in the largest class action in the UK, brought by 49,500 private shareholders of the collapsed national railway infrastructure company Railtrack.[17] The Government had money and reputation at stake, the case examining some of the actions of HM Government, especially of former Transport Secretary Stephen Byers. Byers became the only former Cabinet Minister to be cross-examined in the High Court in relation to his actions in modern times: the British Government won the case.

Sumption earned £7.8 million for his defence of Roman Abramovich in the 2012 case Berezovsky v Abramovich. This is believed to be the highest fee ever earned in British legal history.[18]

Judicial careerEdit

On 4 May 2011 Sumption's appointment as a Justice of the Supreme Court was announced.[19] Upon his subsequent swearing-in on 11 January 2012,[1] he assumed the title of Lord Sumption pursuant to a Royal Warrant (by which all members of the Supreme Court, even if they do not hold a peerage title, are accorded the style of "Lord" for life).[20][21] Sumption was sworn of the Privy Council on 14 December 2011 in advance of his joining the Court, whose Justices also serve as members of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council.[22] He retired from the Supreme Court on 9 December 2018.[23]

Sumption is the first lawyer appointed to the Supreme Court without previously serving as a full-time judge since its inception in 2009. There were only five such appointments as Law Lords to the Court's predecessor, the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords.[24] Two were Scots lawyers: Lord Macmillan in 1930 and Lord Reid in 1948; the others were: Lord Macnaghten (1887), Lord Carson (1921) and Lord Radcliffe (1949).

After his retirement, Sumption was appointed as a Non-Permanent Judge of the Court of Final Appeal in Hong Kong on 18 December 2019.[25] He had previously appeared as counsel in the Court of Final Appeal in a number of cases.[26]


The Hundred Years' WarEdit

Sumption's narrative history of the Hundred Years' War between England and France (of which four volumes have so far been published, between 1990 and 2015) has been widely praised as "earning a place alongside Steven Runciman's A History of the Crusades" according to Frederic Raphael, and as a work that "deploys an enormous variety of documentary material ... and interprets it with imaginative and intelligent sympathy" and is "elegantly written" (Rosamond McKitterick, Evening Standard); for Allan Massie it is "An enterprise on a truly Victorian scale ... What is most impressive about this work, apart from the author's mastery of his material and his deployment of it, is his political intelligence".[27]

Five volumes are planned.[10] Volume I (covering the years from the funeral of Charles IV of France in 1329 to the Surrender of Calais in 1347) was first published in 1990. Volume II (covering the years from 1347 to 1369) was published in 1999. Volume III (covering the years from 1369 to 1399) appeared in 2009. Volume IV (covering the years from 1399 to 1422) appeared in 2015, the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt.

Sumption has been praised for a clipped and polished prose style, which he credits to his unwillingness to employ cliché. He admires Gibbon but points out "if anybody wrote like him today they’d be dismissed as a pompous fart".[28]

Political viewsEdit

Sumption said that an attempt to rapidly achieve gender equality in the Supreme Court through quotas or positive discrimination could end up discouraging male applicants and so "have appalling consequences for justice".[29][30]

Sumption has been described as "conservative neo-liberal and libertarian."[31]

He has criticised the historical curriculum in English schools as "appallingly narrow", warning that by forcing English schoolchildren to study 1918–1945 in isolation they "are being taught about Germany and Europe during its most aberrant period".[28]

Sumption has written about his concerns regarding law and order and the justice system, most notably in his book Trials of the State: Law and the Decline of Politics (2019). He argues that in recent years, judicial law has undermined legislation and political process because the courts have been given too much power and have been judging issues that should be decided in a political debate context. This is because he argues that in political realms, rather than in courts, there is more accountability, especially from the public. He has criticised the European Court of Human Rights. He has compared the values of the Strasbourg court and those of the post-war dictatorships of eastern Europe, stating that "they both employ the concept of democracy as a generalised term of approval for a set of political values".[31][32]

COVID-19 pandemicEdit

Sumption has been highly critical of the British government's use of lockdown to curb the COVID-19 pandemic, arguing against restrictions on the public, in defence of the rights and civil liberties of the private individual.[33] As he is a former Supreme Court judge, Sumption's criticism is a notable addition to the views of other high-profile critics such as Peter Hitchens and Toby Young.[34] On 30 March 2020, Sumption gave an interview on The World at One about the then recently implemented full restrictive lockdown on the population on 23 March 2020. He argued that the full restrictive lockdown would have serious negative consequences as a result of restricting civil liberties, locking down a healthy population, and stalling a healthy economy.[35] He questioned whether the virus was serious enough to "warrant putting most of the population into house imprisonment, wrecking our economy for an indefinite period, destroying businesses that honest and hard-working people have taken years to build up, saddling future generations with debt?" He argued that the lockdown would have serious health costs on many people causing "unbelievable distress inflicted on millions of people who are not especially vulnerable and will suffer only mild symptoms or none at all, like the Health Secretary and the Prime Minister".[36] For these reasons, Sumption believes the lockdown as a 'cure' for the virus may be worse than the effects of the actual virus.[37]

He has criticised the actions of the police forces during the lockdown measures because he argued that they followed the wishes of ministers instead of just the law, when the ministers themselves were simply reacting to public pressure in applying stringent lockdown measures. Furthermore, in The Sunday Times of 17 May 2020 he remarked that "Free people make mistakes and willingly take risks. If we hold politicians responsible for everything that goes wrong, they will take away our liberty so that nothing can go wrong. They will do this not for our protection against risk, but for their own protection against criticism".[38] In The Spectator, he wrote of his concerns that Britain risked becoming a 'police state' and queried whether the "severe" police reaction was justified.[31]

In a podcast interview in July 2020, Sumption claimed evidence existed indicating the virus was very mild compared to other pandemics in the 20th century. He said a Cabinet Office paper which showed pandemics in the 20th century with the Coronavirus at the lowest in terms of infectiousness and mortality levels. He argued that a coronavirus inquiry is needed because there will be worse pandemics in the future. In the same interview he also added that MPs had privately thanked him for speaking out against the lockdown but did not "dare open their mouths” to publicly speak out about it.[39]

Sumption has argued that the lockdown response to the pandemic could threaten democracy. He has said this is because people have been giving up their liberties because of their fear of the virus, and despotisms arise not because liberty is forcibly taken away by tyrants but because people voluntarily surrender their liberty in return for protection from some perceived threat and it’s in the interests of governments to exaggerate that threat in order to procure compliance.[40]

Furthermore, he has noted that advocates of human rights “have been extraordinarily silent” about the lockdown. Sumption has said that his view on the virus vindicate the views he expressed in his Reith lectures and in his book Trials of the State: Law and the Decline of Politics (2019) which was "remarkably prescient" about it.[41]

In a podcast aired on 10 September 2020, Sumption told journalist Allison Pearson of The Daily Telegraph that the "lockdown and the quarantine rules and most of the other regulations have been made under the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984", not the Coronavirus Act 2020 itself. Sumption further observed that the only language contained in this Act which confers specific powers over an individual's liberty relate to individuals who are believed "on reasonable grounds" to have contracted an infectious agent, and that thus the powers purported by the Johnson government to enforce lockdown measures on the whole population are in fact ultra vires and of vanishing effect on the vast majority. He found the deliberate employment of this Act to enforce a lockdown a "drastic decision" and "profoundly controversial".[42]

On 13 September 2020, Sumption told Tom Swarbrick on LBC′s Sunday show that he thought the new coronavirus social distancing policy of rule of six was unenforceable: "You can enforce it if you're sufficiently intrusive – you can put spies on every street, you can have marshals watching through windows but unless you do that people are not going to respect it unless they think it's a good idea."[43]

On 27 October 2020, Sumption delivered at University of Cambridge the annual Freshfields lecture, which he entitled "Government by decree - COVID-19 and the Constitution". In it, he decried the executive's bypassing of Parliament via the Public Health Act 1984, which allowed it to introduce lockdowns and other measures without scrutiny. He expanded by stating that the executive gave police unprecedented discretionary enforcement powers, some of which were used to suppress opposition to its policies, including via new quasi-criminal offences brought into being on the 'mere say-so of ministers', with fines of up to £10,000, through the 'language of impending doom... alarmist projections and statistical manipulation'.[44]

On 17 January 2021, Sumption appeared on The Big Questions to discuss the question of whether the lockdown was "punishing too many for the greater good".[45] He did not accept that "all lives are of equal value".[45] He said that his children and grandchildren's lives were worth more "worth more because they’ve got a lot more of it ahead".[45] Deborah James, who has stage 4 metastatic bowel cancer and hosts the You, Me and the Big C podcast said "With all due respect, I am the person who you say their life is not valuable."[45] Sumption interrupted James, saying "I didn’t say your life was not valuable, I said it was less valuable."[45] James then said "Who are you to put a value on life? In my view, and I think in many others, life is sacred and I don’t think we should make those judgement calls. All life is worth saving regardless of what life it is people are living. I’m fully aware and I’ve seen first-hand and said goodbye to best friends in terms of the collateral Covid is causing, but at the same time I’m incredibly grateful to be somebody who is kept alive because of the NHS."[45] Catherine Foot of the Centre for Ageing Better challenged his views, saying she "shuddered" at his comment that not all lives were equal.[45] She said that the crisis required drawing red lines and that one was "every human is equal".[45] Sumption also said that only the "old and vulnerable" should isolate.[45] Host Nicky Campbell asked if this was "utterly simplistic as vulnerability includes a broad range of people and people of all ages interact.[45] Sumption also claimed that government action had "virtually no impact" on mortality rates, which was criticised by Calum Semple as "plain wrong".[45] Semple also pointed out that "the value of life doesn’t change at the age of 70".[45]


Sumption speaks French and Italian fluently, and reads Spanish, Dutch, Portuguese, Catalan, and Latin.[10] He "rarely learned them using guides, instead I preferred to muddle on through a text with a dictionary by my side".[28]

An opera lover, he serves as a director of the English National Opera and as a governor of the Royal Academy of Music.[46]

Full styleEdit

  • The Rt Hon Lord Sumption, OBE, FRHistS, FSA.

Notable casesEdit

As counselEdit

As judgeEdit



  1. ^ a b "Jonathan Sumption QC to be sworn in as Supreme Court Justice" (PDF). Supreme Court of the United Kingdom. 10 January 2012. Retrieved 10 January 2012.
  2. ^ Dodd (2003).
  3. ^ Law Lords Department (2000).
  4. ^ a b Irvine (2011).
  5. ^ Leigh (2010).
  6. ^ Croft (2012).
  7. ^
  8. ^ "Index entry". FreeBMD. ONS. Retrieved 21 May 2019.
  9. ^ Daily Telegraph (2008).
  10. ^ a b c d e Steavenson, Wendell (6 August 2015). "Jonathan Sumption: the brain of Britain". Retrieved 15 August 2015.
  11. ^ Brick Court Chambers website: Jonathan Sumption QC’s Full CV Archived 8 October 2011 at the Wayback Machine Retrieved: 16 October 2011
  12. ^ Bogdanor, Vernon (21 May 2013). "Sir Keith Joseph and the Market Economy, Lecture delivered at Gresham College". Lecture delivered at Gresham College. Archived from the original on 8 May 2017.
  13. ^ a b Irvine, Ian (14 October 2011). "Jonathan Sumption: Donnish but deadly". The Independent.
  14. ^ "Judiciary". Jersey Law. Archived from the original on 10 February 2011. Retrieved 11 May 2011.
  15. ^ East Hants Council (2007).
  16. ^ a b Dyer (2003).
  17. ^ Daily Telegraph (2005).
  18. ^ "Chelsea's big defender – the QC paid £8m". The Times. 9 September 2012. Retrieved 1 December 2020.
  19. ^ "Press Release:Senior Judicial Appointments". Number 10. 4 May 2011.
  20. ^ "Courtesy titles for Justices of the Supreme Court" (PDF). Supreme Court of the United Kingdom. 13 December 2010. Retrieved 14 December 2010.
  21. ^ "No. 59746". The London Gazette. 1 April 2011. pp. 6177–6178.
  22. ^ "Orders approved at Privy Council 14 December 2011" (PDF). Privy Council Office. Retrieved 13 January 2012.
  23. ^ "Former Justices". Supreme Court of the United Kingdom. Retrieved 13 December 2018.
  24. ^
  25. ^ "Appointments of non-permanent judge from another common law jurisdiction of the Court of Final Appeal and the Chief Judge of the High Court". Government of Hong Kong. 13 December 2019.
  26. ^ For example, Akai Holdings Ltd v Thanakharn Kasikorn Thai Chamkat, FACV 16/2009, reported at (2010) 13 HKCFAR 479, and Goldlion Properties Limited v Regent National Enterprises Limited, FACV 10/2008, reported at (2009) 12 HKCFAR 512
  27. ^ Quotations from the selection of reviews displayed on the back of The Hundred Years War III: Divided Houses.
  28. ^ a b c "Jonathan Sumption Interview | Quadrapheme". Archived from the original on 14 April 2016. Retrieved 28 October 2015.
  29. ^ Cohen, Nick (27 September 2015). "Why the Women's Equality party is long overdue". The Guardian. Guardian Media Group. Retrieved 27 September 2015.
  30. ^ Bentham, Martin (21 September 2015). "Rush for gender equality with top judges 'could have appalling consequences for justice'". London Evening Standard. London. Retrieved 27 September 2015.
  31. ^ a b c Birkinshaw, Patrick (2020). "Review Article - Jonathan Sumption, Trials of the State". Retrieved 17 September 2020.
  32. ^ Petley, Giannoulopoulos, Julian, Dimitrios (10 June 2019). ""Attacks on Grieve and Bercow stem from flawed, feudal ideas of 'sovereignty'"". Retrieved 17 September 2020.
  33. ^ Compton, Jonathan (19 May 2020). "Lord Sumption is wrong on lockdown liberty". Law Gazette. Retrieved 2 September 2020.
  34. ^ Patrick, Philip (8 April 2020). "Patrick, Philip (8 April 2020). "We need to look carefully at the consequences of coronavirus lockdown". Retrieved 2 September 2020". Retrieved 2 September 2020.
  35. ^ Toynbee, Polly (7 April 2020). "Your money or your life? Coronavirus has sparked the latest culture war". The Guardian. Retrieved 2 September 2020.
  36. ^ The World at One. BBC Radio 4. 30 March 2020.
  37. ^ Buchan, Lizzy (30 March 2020). "Coronavirus: Former Supreme Court justice warns of 'collective hysteria' over outbreak". The Independent. Retrieved 2 September 2020.
  38. ^ Sumption, Jonathan (17 May 2020). "Set us free from lockdown, ministers, and stop covering your backs". The Sunday Times.
  39. ^ "The Londoner: Lockdown and the MPs 'too scared to speak out'". Evening Standard. 2 June 2020. Retrieved 2 September 2020.
  40. ^ "Use of fear has brought about 'the greatest invasion of personal liberty in our history' –Lord Sumption". Planet Normal (Podcast). The Telegraph. 10 September 2020. Approx. 2 min. beginning at 18:47. Retrieved 11 September 2020.
  41. ^ Summan, Kapil (22 July 2020). "Lord Sumption admits to disobeying coronavirus rules when they reached 'absurdity'". Scottish Legal. Retrieved 2 September 2020.
  42. ^ Pearson, Allison; Halligan, Liam (10 September 2020). "Planet Normal: Use of fear has brought about 'the greatest invasion of personal liberty in our history' –Lord Sumption". Telegraph Media Group Limited.
  43. ^ "Ex–Supreme Court judge Lord Sumption says rule of six is ′unenforceable′". LBC News. London. 13 September 2020. Retrieved 13 September 2020.
  44. ^ Hymas, Charles (27 October 2020). "Lord Sumption: Ministers stoked fear to justify lockdowns". Telegraph Media Group Limited.
  45. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Skopeliti, Clea (17 January 2021). "Lord Sumption tells stage 4 cancer patient her life is 'less valuable'". The Guardian. Retrieved 18 January 2021.
  46. ^ "Governing Body". Royal Academy of Music.


External linksEdit

Legal offices
Preceded by
Non-Permanent Judge of the Court of Final Appeal of Hong Kong