Barristers must rethink their "ridiculous" protests against legal aid cuts, Supreme Court justice Lord Sumption has said, in a speech in which he also conceded that solicitors were now almost as clever as barristers.  

Speaking to the annual Bar and Young Bar Conference in London last week, Sumption told his audience that legal aid has historically been too widely available in the past. "I know that this is not going to be a popular message in this place", he said, "but the bar’s response to these challenges has not always been wise".

No stranger to courting controversy within the profession, he said the public believes that barristers "are rich toffs who help their clients to avoid their just deserts". As a result, "Public demonstrations with banner in hand and wig on head look ridiculous and are completely counter-productive". Barristers should fight unacceptable cuts by refusing to take on instructions for inadequate fees, said Sumption, and by working on sympathetic government ministers.

The 69-year-old, who will retire from the Supreme Court next year (and perhaps return to the bar to make a quick fortune), risked controversy again by venturing in his speech that “most” solicitors "are excellent lawyers". Until the 1970s, he said, solicitors "were quite extraordinarily deferential to barristers". Few solicitors were sharp legal analysts or learned in case-law, he said, partly because back then "litigation was no business for a gentleman".

Sumption described an unnamed City firm where the litigation department consisted of a single clerk whose job "was to arrange to get the chairman of the client’s chauffeur off speeding charges, and to rid the senior partner of his wife at minimum cost to his bottom line".

birkin qc


It's not all changed for the better. Most of the suits now worn by barristers are "of two pieces not three, and usually bought off the shelf". Yuck. And sharper solicitors has meant barristers have had to improve their blagging skills. "When post-it stickers came in in the 1980s, a distinguished member of my chambers used to instruct his juniors to plant them at strategic point through the bundles in order to suggest careful perusal", mused Sumption. "That would have been quite unnecessary a decade earlier".

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Sumoking 30 November 18 08:12

He's probably right about the barrister protests

I mean who would be moved to demand political change if say bankers or politicians were protesting that they don't get enough tax payer support

NotaToff 30 November 18 09:48

"are rich toffs who help their clients to avoid their just deserts"

I've always avoided Sahara and Gobi, on principle, and I'm no toff!

Deserter 30 November 18 10:43

Re NotaToff: "deserts" as in punishments deserved not as in places deserted...

(or were you taking a punt at punning rather than taking issue with the spelling?)

3-ducks 30 November 18 11:22

Lollers at solicitors being as clever as barristers. Most of them have probably never read a case.

Anonymous 01 December 18 00:33

He is a top bloke, Sumption.  The only really senior judicial figure who’s willing to tell the bar the unpalatable truth.

And he’s funny.

We won’t see his like again after he’s gone.

(He’s 69, not 74.  He has to retire at 70.)


Warren 04 December 18 11:08

Sumption was a great barrister when he was arguing other's positions, but when he was left to his own devices as a judge he had some funny ideas.  The appalling assassination of the long-held public good that was the rule against contractual penalties betrayed in my view a shocking arrogance and privilege.  Lucky for us all that mandatory retirement limits the damage he might otherwise have done.

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