Supreme Court justice Lord Sumption has urged lawyers to avoid the ‘self-contained view’ created by specialising in one area – citing the family bar as especially insular. 

Looking into the ‘garden next door’, Sumption (pictured) said, would help advocates present a more rounded and relevant case in court.

‘In the Supreme Court this is particularly problematic,’ he told a conference of the Royal College of Surgeons today. ‘We deal mainly with cases where the existing authorities are inconclusive, unsatisfactory, out of date or non-existent.’

Sumption said he was sceptical about specialisation as he did not regard law as comprising distinct bundles of rules covering each area of human affairs.

More fundamentally, the practice of law should involve applying a range of common techniques and instincts to a variety of legal problems.

‘What we think about any moral or legal issue must be able to stand up to any argument we find compelling about any other,’ he said.

‘The erection of impenetrable partitions between different areas of law obstructs this process. It is the fastest route to incoherence I know.’

As an example, Sumption suggested that the law of contract has been significantly influenced by concepts derived from public law and the concept of property in private law is ‘fundamentally affected’ by human rights law.

Sumption said family law in particular seemed particularly self-contained, surrounded by ‘impermeable barriers’ and ‘internally subdivided by equally impermeable partitions’.

He noted that lawyers and even judges regard themselves as experts in money cases and ‘will not touch’ children cases, and vice versa.

‘The family bar, I think, remains one of the more insular areas of practice,’ he added.

‘This deprives it of perceptions which would enrich it, as it has enriched other areas of law. Ultimately all of this depends on a willingness on the part of practitioners working in their core areas to look critically at familiar principles and relate them to what is happening elsewhere. Sometimes, distance lends enchantment.’