Lord Sumption: Legal specialisation is 'bogus'
Supreme Court justice reflects on the importance of cross-fertilisation between practice areas
There are no desert islands in the law and 'legal specialisations' are 'bogus', Lord Sumption has claimed at a meeting of family lawyers.
Giving the keynote speech at the At a Glance Conference in London, the Supreme Court justice said that family law remained one of the 'more insular areas of practice', which could be improved by practitioners dipping their toes into other areas of law.
Lord Sumption provided examples of recent cases that have benefitted from lawyers looking beyond their own areas of expertise, such as Macleod v Macleod and Radmacher v Granatino that, by way of nuptial agreements, and Sharland v Sharland, introduced the law of contract into the Family Division.
'Ultimately, all of this depends on a willingness [by] practitioners working in their core areas to look critically at familiar principles and relate them to what is happening elsewhere,' he added. 'Sometimes, distance lends enchantment.'
Family law is surrounded by 'impermeable barriers, but it is internally subdivided by equally impermeable partitions',' added the justice. 'There are practitioners, and even judges, who regard themselves as money people, and will not touch children cases, and vice versa.
'Some practitioners would run a mile rather than deal with trusts or tax. To me this all seems rather surprising. I have always taken the view that legal specialisations are essentially bogus. At the Bar, I liked to trespass on other people's cabbage patches. As a judge I do it most of the time.'
Sumption explained that he was sceptical of specialisation as he does not regard law as comprising distinct bundles of rules for each area of human affairs.
'Advocates come into court with a library of familiar authorities, which are part of the vernacular of practice in their area, without trying to relate them to any more fundamental legal principles,' he said.
'They take for granted rules of law which sometimes strike outsiders as distinctly odd but are too familiar to have struck practitioners that way.'
This is a particular problem in the Supreme Court, explained Sumption, where cases before it are often hamstrung by existing authorities that are 'inconclusive, unsatisfactory, out of date, or non-existent'.
However, the justice acknowledged that an advantage of an appellate system was that it allowed decisions from a specialised jurisdiction to be reviewed 'at a distance'.
'There will usually be at least one specialist on the appeal panel,' said Sumption. 'But his or her voice will not necessarily be decisive. The proposition has to run the gauntlet of external scrutiny.
'This permits a measure of cross-fertilisation between different areas of law, which for my part I think profoundly healthy.'