Jonathan Sumption: Donnish, but deadly

The QC at the centre of the Abramovich legal case is about to join the Supreme Court. By Ian Irvine
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Brick Court is one of the most successful commercial barristers' chambers in the country. In the early 1980s, its most formidable clerk, a man of trenchant views and long experience, observed of Jonathan Sumption, then a young barrister, that he had never seen a more obvious candidate for the House of Lords.

Soon this prediction will come true: within a few months, Sumption will be gazetted with a life peerage and take up a new post as one of the 12 justices of the Supreme Court. This leap from the bar to the highest court in the land is almost unprecedented.

In the meantime, Sumption is very much in the spotlight. Two London-based Russian oligarchs, Boris Berezovsky and Roman Abramovich, are head to head before an English judge, seeking judgment on share deals done in the wild east of Russia of the 1980s. Sumption, as Abramovich's brief, has been at the forefront, cross-examining Berezovsky for the past fortnight. However it ends, it will form a suitably impressive conclusion to one of the most remarkable – and lucrative – careers at the bar, played out in high-profile, high-stakes cases for clients who have included the British government, Alastair Campbell and the Queen.

Campbell's diaries characterise Sumption as a man with a brain the size of the planet. This fearsome intelligence is his most outstanding quality allied to prodigious energy. In person he has a slight air of donnish dishevelment and a fizz of nervous energy.

Sumption did not intend to become a lawyer. He was educated at Eton and then Magdalen College, Oxford, where he took a first in history in 1970 and stayed on as a tutor, specialising in the medieval period. His first book on pilgrimage in the Middle Ages was published in 1974. He has been forthright about his reasons for leaving academic life. "It is extraordinarily badly paid, and in the long run this will be a disaster. The quality of people going into teaching and research is not what it once was. If I'd been earning double the £2,500 I was in 1971, I would have been quite happy remaining."

For some time he considered politics as an alternative career. Politics was discarded, however, because of the "demands it makes on one's time". In fact, his politics have always been mixed. In 2000 he said that "basically I'm a Tory who votes Labour much of the time".

Eventually law seemed to offer the best opportunity for an intellectually stimulating occupation with the opportunity to make a reasonable living. He joined the bar in 1975 and rapidly made a name for himself in a series of commercial cases, becoming a QC in 1986.

He has also been employed by the government. In 2000 he advised Jack Straw, then Home Secretary, during the attempted extradition of General Pinochet to Spain. He was Alastair Campbell's brief during the 2003 Hutton inquiry.

Fellow silks, not often noted for unselfish admiration of their colleagues, admit that he is a superb courtroom performer and capable of devastating cross-examination. Their appreciation also extended to the fees he could command. From at least the middle of the 1990s, Sumption has belonged to the financial elite of the bar, earning more than a million pounds a year.

He enjoys the money. "The trouble with a large income is that it leads to extravagant tastes, and you don't want to give those up." He is married with three children, all privately educated, and he is a governor of the Royal Academy of Music. One use he makes of his wealth is to fund a parallel career as a historian. Since the late 1990s he has been engaged on a vast narrative history of the Hundred Years War, with three acclaimed volumes so far.

What can we expect from Lord Sumption when arrives at the Supreme Court? Naturally many in the legal profession are resentful at such a rapid promotion, but there is also a feeling that he will bring a considerable and necessary boost of intellectual firepower to the roster of our senior judges.

Supreme Court judges are obliged to retire at 70. This means Jonathan Sumption has seven years to bring distinction to his latest career. Given his energy and intelligence, that should be more than enough.

Born Jonathan Philip Chadwick Sumption, 9 December 1948.

Family The son of former barrister Anthony and Hilda Hedigan. Married to Teresa Sumption, one son and two daughters.

Education Attended Eton then Magdalen College, Oxford, where he graduated with first-class honours in history in 1970.

Career Called to the bar at Inner Temple in 1975, became a Queen's Council in 1986 and a Bencher in 1991. He is joint head of Brick Court Chambers. Appointed to the UK Supreme Court in 2011. He has written numerous books on history.

He says "It's an interesting intellectual exercise debating points of policy with highly intelligent people under ground rules which prevent you from evading the issue as one might over a dinner table."

They say "If you're against him, you know it's going to be a serious experience." Lord Grabiner QC