Sumption Assumptions

Much has been written in the legal press recently about the impending elevation of Jonathan Sumption QC to the Supreme Court bench.  It is said that this appointment has been deferred so that Sumption can appear in the Berezovsky v. Abramovich trial in October.

Inevitably, in a scenario like this where the parties who have the real answers are bound not to comment, many assumptions have had to be made about the cause and motivation behind events.

I do not know Jonathan Sumption personally.  I work for a competing Chambers.  I have no knowledge of events other than what I have read in the press.  I am merely writing to give my objective take on what I have read from the perspective of a barristers’ clerk.

It is widely speculated that Sumption has persuaded the powers that be to defer his appointment in order for him to cash in on a £multimillion brief fee.  I am going to suggest a different scenario which I believe is at least as plausible yet does not seem to have been considered by the headline writers.

First, let’s talk about money.  Sumption is the undisputed leader at the commercial Bar and has been for a good number of years.  He is no stranger to substantial fees.  Many millions may (or may not) rest on the Abramovich brief, but he will have received seven figure brief fees before and could well continue to do so for many years if he so chose.  If he was neither appointed nor briefed for the Abramovich trial it is likely that he would still earn very substantial sums, even by just sitting in his chamber dispensing advice in writing and in conference.

Thus whatever sum is resting on the Abramovich brief, the difference between this and what Sumption could otherwise earn would be very considerably less than the figures that have been so sensationally quoted.  Of course, it seems in any event that he has chosen not to continue to pursue the big bucks, whether by way of this brief or the next, in favour of a judicial appointment.

Against this background I find it utterly implausible and somewhat crass to suggest that Sumption has engineered this situation for blatant financial gain.  It just doesn’t stack up.  Certainly no more so than an alternative hypothesis which I will now outline.

It is not clear when Sumption was instructed by Abramovich but it might well have been shortly after the failed strike out appeal in February.  He might have been instructed to read into the case, to provide strategic advice and to accept the brief for the trial in October.  This would be an expensive exercise.

We do not know when Sumption was offered the appointment.  Some reports suggest that it predates his involvement in the Abramovich case but the first report I can find referring to it appeared in the Times on 23rd March, by which time he could have already been working on the case for about a month.  He or his clerk would have had to relay news of the appointment to Abramovich via his solicitor.  Abramovich would naturally have been horrified at the news, having lost his chosen counsel for what is arguably the trial of his life, having paid substantial sums for the advice and booking fees as well as the other consequences of trial preparation being steered in a direction dictated by Sumption’s advice.  He would have every right to complain vehemently.  After all, everyone is entitled to access to justice – even oligarchs.

In this situation the barrister’s clerk in me would look to find a solution for the client by negotiating the postponement of the appointment.   It would not at that stage have been in the public domain so what harm would be done by granting such a request ?  And who is to say that had this request been refused then Sumption would not then have returned the Abramovich brief ?

Of course, this would be unprecedented (to public knowledge at least) but, as has been widely reported, there are many unprecedented aspects to this whole affair.   And yes, I too am making some major assumptions.  But are they really any less plausible than those behind the recent headlines ?  Or are they just making and ass out of both you and me ?