England: Solicitor successfully appeals ‘alarming’ misconduct fine after intimate relations with firm junior
An English solicitor who was fined for misconduct after engaging in sexual activity with a junior in his legal firm has succeeded in reversing the decision after appealing under the Solicitors Act 1974.
The misconduct action was originally brought by the Solicitors Regulation Authority against the appellant, Ryan Beckwith, in the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal. He argued that the Tribunal had been wrong in some of its conclusions regarding his conduct.
The appeal was heard by the President of the Queen’s Bench Division, Dame Victoria Sharp, sitting with Justice Swift.
Allowed in to use the bathroom
The appellant was a partner in the firm of Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer. He had been the subject of two complaints brought to the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal, the first of which was dismissed by the Tribunal. The second alleged that he had engaged in sexual activity with “Person A”, a junior member of the firm for whom the appellant acted as supervising partner.
The details of the allegation were that on 1 July 2016 the appellant had gone out for drinks with a group of people including Person A in anticipation of her departure from the firm on 7 July. Both the appellant and Person A consumed a substantial volume of alcohol over the course of the night.
At the end of the night, the appellant and Person A got in the same taxi. She allowed the appellant in to use the bathroom. Following this, the two engaged in sexual activity. No evidence was given that the appellant had abused his authority as a partner, or the fact that he was her boss, to convince Person A to have sex with him.
It was found that the appellant had breached Principles 2 and 6 of the then-current SRA Handbook of 2011, which stated that solicitors must act with integrity and behave in a way that maintains public trust in the provision of legal services. The Tribunal decided that the appropriate sanction would be a fine of £35,000, with the appellant also meeting the SRA’s costs in the amount of £200,000.
The appellant contended that the Tribunal was wrong to conclude that his conduct amounted to a breach of either Principle 2 or Principle 6, and that it had fallen into error when applying the Principles to the facts as it found them.
No abuse of authority
In the court’s decision, to which both judges contributed, it considered that the key issue in applying Principle 2 was the contention that the appellant had not acted in abuse of his authority.
The court explained: “Given the detailed findings the Tribunal had made as to the events of the evening, we consider the Tribunal was clearly right to conclude that no abuse of authority had occurred. However, the Tribunal then fell into error by categorising those events as it had assessed them, to be a breach of Principle 2.”
It continued: “In the context of the course of conduct alleged in Allegation 1.2, the requirement to act with integrity obliged the Appellant not to act so as to take unfair advantage of Person A by reason of his professional status. On the findings made by the Tribunal, that had not happened.”
Affected his own reputation
In relation to Principle 6, the court said: “The content of Principle 6 must be closely informed by careful and realistic consideration of the standards set out in the 2011 Code of Conduct. Otherwise Principle 6 is apt to become unruly. There is a qualitative distinction between conduct that does or may tend to undermine public trusting the solicitor’s profession and conduct that would be generally regarded as wrong, inappropriate or even for the person concerned, disgraceful.”
Applying this to the facts of the case, it began: “Seriously abusive conduct by one member of the profession against another, particularly by a more senior against a more junior member of the profession is clearly capable of damaging public trust in the provision of professional services by that more senior professional and even by the profession generally.”
However, it went on to say: “What the Appellant did affected his own reputation; but there is a qualitative distinction between conduct of that order and conduct that affects either his own reputation as a provider of legal services or the reputation of his profession. The Tribunal asserted that the Appellant’s behaviour crossed this line but provided no explanation.”
The court concluded: “The Tribunal had already concluded that the Appellant’s conduct did not amount to an abuse of his seniority or authority over Person A. On the application of Principle 6 to the facts of this case, that conclusion is a critical conclusion and, as we have already said, on the facts of this case it was a conclusion that was clearly correct. Conduct amounting to an abuse by a solicitor of his professional position is clearly capable of engaging Principle 6. But, as the Tribunal concluded, that was not this case.”
For these reasons, the appeal was allowed. The Tribunal’s order that the appellant pay a fine was quashed, and the cost order made in favour of the SRA was set aside as a result.