Supreme Justice?

With the Prime Minister David Cameron becoming increasingly vocal about judicial behaviour you might expect the country’s leading judges wanting to step out of the limelight.

Any such hope will be dashed after the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) announced that barrister Jonathan Sumption QC will be elevated to the Supreme Court along with family judge Lord Justice Wilson, a family judge.

Around the Inns of Court the news was hardly a surprise. Speculation has been rife for months that Wilson LJ had been given the wink by the MoJ; and no one believed that Sumption could be turned down on his second application.

Yet, as revealed by The Lawyer revealed last month, Sumption will be forced to delay his appointment because he has been confirmed as the instructed lead counsel in the Russian oligarch dispute between Roman Abramovich, for whom he is instructed, and Boris Berezovsky (6 April).

Brick Court Chambers hotly denied suggestions that Sumption had broken bar records by collecting a £10m brief fee for his involvement in the matter. According to his clerks, the set never comments on barrister fees except, that is, to say that £10m is far too high, even for Sumption.

Chambers rightly insisted that had Sumption been aware of any judicial appointment the Bar Council code of conduct would’ve prevented him from taking any appointment.

Yet many barristers would sympathise with Sumption wanting to get in a last big case before he becomes the first barrister to leap frog the Court of Appeal straight into the Supreme Court. As justices in the country’s highest court Sumption and Wilson LJ will collect annual salaries of £206,857, significantly less than a top silks’ pay packet.

While some might sympathise with that position, others regard it as an outrage that Sumption has managed to wangle his way onto the bench but also kept his most controversial cases.

As one poster on TheLawyer.com said: “This is a disgraceful state of affairs. Mr Sumption either wants to be a judge or he does not.

“If he does, then he should be expected to front up in May when [Supreme Court Justice] Lawrence Collins retires and the vacancy arises. Why should the Supreme Court be short-handed for nine months for his convenience and financial benefit?”

Those dissenting voices will no doubt stir up some support from outside the profession.

It may be that despite his stint at the top of the barrister hierarchy, Sumption’s legacy will be (rightly or wrongly) that he was the barrister who collected a multi-million pound brief fee before joining the Supreme Court.

Surely this will just give the critics more ammunition to fire at the judiciary. With politicians coming out of the woodwork to pour scorn on the judiciary over decisions to do with the Human Rights Act and so called-super injunctions, it will be a controversy many judges are keen to avoid.

Yet those at the top of the judicial ladder are starting to get more gutsy in how they deal with the critics.

Never mind the controversy and detractors, Sumption will reinvigorate the Supreme Court panel and give it a practitioner’s perspective.

If he starts to speak out, like his peer Lord Neuberger the Master of the Rolls, it may well be that we start to see a new side to the Supreme Court, one that is quite clearly divided from Westminster as was originally intended when it was first launched.

This must have been a factor considered when the selection commission, chaired by Supreme Court president Lord Phillips, was deciding the outcome of the race.

Similarly Wilson LJ, who was elevated from the High Court to the Court of Appeal in 2005, will no doubt be from the same school of thought as Supreme Court Justice Lady Hale.

The appointments may not be welcomed by everyone, but Sumption and Wilson LJ are here to stay and theirs will be the minds that shape law of the future.