Jonathan Philip Chadwick Sumption was born on 9 December 1948 to Anthony Sumption, a decorated Naval Officer turned barrister, and Hilda Hedigan. Eton-educated, he graduated from Magdalen College, Oxford in 1970 with first-class honours in History. Lord Sumption’s original aspirations did not tend towards the legal profession: after graduating he went on to specialise in the medieval period, tutoring history at Oxford and publishing a book on the Middle Ages. He also considered pursuing a career in politics.  

Early Legal Career

Notwithstanding his academic beginnings, Lord Sumption decided to pursue a career in the law and was called to the bar by the Inner Temple in 1975. Lord Mustill QC secured Lord Sumption a tenancy at Brick Court, where he remained throughout his career at the bar and eventually became joint head of Chambers. He rapidly established a formidable reputation as “the most incisive legal mind encountered in over 30 years of practice” (Charles Plant, Chair of the Board of the SRA and former senior litigation partner at Herbert Smith) and became Queen’s Counsel in 1986.

Lord Sumption became a Bencher in 1991, and was appointed as a Deputy High Court Judge in 1992.  Following this, he served as a Recorder between 1993 and 2001. He was appointed as a Judge of the Courts of Appeal of Jersey and Guernsey in 1995.

In addition to his wide-ranging commercial practice, Lord Sumption enjoyed a number of high profile public appointments during his career at the bar. In 1999 Lord Sumption advised Jack Straw, then Home Secretary, in a High Court challenge over the attempted extradition of former Chilean dictator General Pinochet to Spain to face criminal charges. In 2003 he advised the British government during the Hutton inquiry and the Royal Household in its privacy battle with the Daily Mirror. In 2005 he acted for former Transport Secretary Stephen Byers in the largest UK class action ever brought over Railtrack’s nationalisation.

Lord Sumption’s fearsome intelligence has been much documented, as have his exceptional advocacy skills and his unrivalled ability to cut through complex legal issues. “In most cases, 99 per cent of the facts are irrelevant, either legally or factually or both,” Lord Sumption has stated, opining that “The art of advocacy is to strip those away. When you’re down to the last 1 per cent, the answer should be obvious.”

Appointment as a Justice of the UK Supreme Court

Lord Sumption’s appointment as a Justice of the Supreme Court was approved in May 2011 following the retirement of Lord Collins of Mapesbury. He was formally sworn in on 11 January 2012, the third Justice to be sworn in since the opening of the Supreme Court in October 2009. On his appointment, he stated that “this is a challenging time for the development of the law” and that he was “honoured to have the opportunity of contributing to the work of one of the world’s great common law courts“.

Unusually for a Justice, at no point in his career did Lord Sumption serve as a full-time judge in either the High Court or the Court of Appeal. This appears to have been a personal choice, as Lord Sumption was a passionate exponent of the virtues of the House of Lords throughout his career at the bar, saying: “The House of Lords has been at a very high quality for a very long time. You get a good hearing and impressively reasoned decisions there”. Less enthusiastic about the Court of Appeal, he was quoted in December 2000 as saying: “It has become increasingly difficult to get a proper hearing of genuinely disputable issues in the Court of Appeal. I certainly think that in the last three years the Court of Appeal has been doing things in too much of a hurry, as a result of which it is not always identifying points that actually require a more careful approach.”

Lord Sumption’s direct appointment to the Supreme Court without full-time judicial experience in the lower courts has provoked much comment. Indeed, the appointment makes him the first barrister in more than half a century to be elevated from the bar straight to the UK’s final court of appeal. As Joshua Rozenberg has highlighted, “Leapfrogging two judicial tiers has not happened for more than 60 years, with Lord Reid and Lord Radcliffe being the last two judges appointed to the House of Lords straight from the bar.” Although this “leapfrogging” has been the cause of considerable controversy, many commentators have expressed the view that it is right that our judicial system enables exceptions to be made in the case of outstanding talent.

No stranger to acting for high profile individuals in the Supreme Court, Lord Sumption is already familiar with his new judicial colleagues, saying “I know most of them, in fact all of them” and “I’ve had years to try out all of them and I get on famously with them.” In January 2011, Sumption was brought in by George Lucas’ company Lucasfilms for its IP battle against Shepperton Design Studios in the Supreme Court. Perhaps his most high profile appointment of recent times is as brief to Chelsea FC owner Roman Abramovich in the billion dollar case against Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky.

Personal life

Lord Sumption is married to Teresa Sumption, with whom he has a son and two daughters. He is devoted to opera and is a governor of the Royal Academy of Music. He has been quoted as saying: “I don’t love law but I enjoy practising it. I do love history.”  With a vast personal library containing in excess of 7,000 volumes on the Hundred Years War alone, he has partially completed a vast narrative history of the period, three volumes of which have already appeared to critical acclaim.

At 63, Lord Sumption now has seven years to bring distinction to his career as a Supreme Court Justice. Which means he may well be forced to put his parallel career as an independent historian on hold . . . (or perhaps make a little history of his own).