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Insights into the Law from Lord Jonathan Sumption


Source: The Telegraph


The words ‘the law is easy’ are words one rarely hears. However, those are the words used by Lord Jonathan Sumption when asked about his transition from historian to barrister. Law is easy, he says, because it is not difficult to look up the law or to determine that nobody knows what the law is. There is only a finite range of sources from which one can refer to in order to research the law.


Facts, on the other hand, is where the difficulty lies in the practice of law. Facts are hard to classify and one has to know which facts are the ones actually relevant to the legal propositions in the case. In his experience, Lord Sumption has found that practitioners tend to agree on the legal propositions, and what is really in issue is the legal classification of the facts. Shortly put, the facts make the case.


As for his approach to cross-examination, Lord Sumption says he used to prepare full notes when he was in practice. He would write down his questions, the evidence to be referred to and the possible follow-up questions. He would, however, regularly depart from his notes. The true purpose of this exercise was as such not to lay down a map to be followed but rather to analyse the factual issues and master the documents.


When it came to appeals, Lord Sumption proceeded on the footing that the appellate court would assume that the judge in the court below was correct. It was then up to the advocate to present a case that would seize the interest of the court. On an appeal, one has to be selective with the points that are taken. Lord Sumption is also of the view that at this level of advocacy, barristers should have a grasp of the basic principles underlying the whole field of law as a decision from a remote area of law may prove to be the answer. This is why he finds specialisation to be an impediment to barristers as they become so focused on the law relating to a particular subject that they fail to ask themselves the basic principles beyond that area of law.


All said, whether one finds the law easy or otherwise, there is much to be gleaned from Lord Sumption’s practical insights into legal analysis, cross-examination and appeals.


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