I’m not going to start questioning the opinion of Lord Sumption, an old Etonian Oxford graduate appointed as QC at 38 and now esteemed Supreme Court judge.
But whether he should be able to express such opinions in a forum away from the bench, well, that’s a different matter.
This week Sumption caused a reaction with a provocative and detailed analysis of the personal injury compensation market.
It was thought-provoking, certainly, but at times verged towards partisan – and that is where the problem lies.
The Supreme Court justice entitled his talk ‘Abolishing Personal Injuries Law’ (which is a strange concept, when you consider it’s his job to uphold that law) and said the whole forensic process of attributing fault is ‘inherently biased’ in favour of the claimant.
Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. Your view probably depends on which side of the fence you sit. Sumption’s arguments are persuasive, certainly, and I would expect policy-makers to be having similar ongoing discussions.
But should a serving judge be saying it? The last lord chief justice was keen on judges speaking in public to clarify the law and educate the masses, but did that extend to discussing – even querying – legislation and policy in a public forum?
No-one is questioning Sumption’s impartiality next time he presides over a personal injury case, but appearances matter. Certainly the responses of certain claimant solicitors suggest this speech has undermined trust. Even Sumption’s recognition that he is ‘in a minority’ raises questions – does he mean his colleagues think differently, and if so are they therefore open to accusations from defendant lawyers?
Sumption is no stranger to controversy: he caused a stir previously with an interview about diversity and positive discrimination.
But those are public matters of wider interest, not policy discussions. He obviously has a great deal to add to the personal injury debate, but he should probably save it for his retirement.