The High Court has recently overturned the ruling of the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal in the case of Ryan Beckwith.  Beckwith is a former partner of Freshfield Bruckhaus Deringer.  In September and October 2019 he appeared before the Tribunal facing allegations, brought against him by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), of misconduct.  These related to a sexual encounter he had with a junior lawyer following an alcohol-fuelled night out.  Having heard the evidence, the Tribunal rejected the allegation that Beckwith had abused his position of seniority; but found that he had breached his professional obligations to act with integrity and to maintain the trust which the public places in solicitors.  The Tribunal imposed a fine of £35,000 and ordered Beckwith to pay £200,000 towards the eye-watering costs of £343,957.08 that the SRA had incurred.  Beckwith appealed against this decision to the High Court.

Whilst waiting for the appeal to be heard, there has been much debate about the extent to which regulators can, and should, look at the actions of professionals in scenarios that might be regarded as outside work.  The issue of whether a professional is no longer entitled to a private life has also been viewed in the context of the rise of the #MeToo movement; and concerns about the way in which professional services businesses have dealt with complaints of sexual misconduct.    

The High Court delivered its judgment on 27 November 2020. Referring to the SRA standards which were in force at the time of the alleged misconduct, it agreed that Beckwith had not taken unfair advantage of the junior lawyer by way of his professional standing, and found that the Tribunal was wrong in concluding that he had acted without integrity.  In making this finding, the Court gave a clear warning to that this did not constitute permission for the regulator now to amend its rules to extend the scope of the obligation to act with integrity into a professional’s personal life.

When considering whether Beckwith had acted in such a way as to undermine public trust in the profession, the Court drew the distinction between conduct which undermines the public’s trust in the profession, and conduct which would be “generally regarded as wrong, inappropriate or even for the person concerned, disgraceful”. Whether inappropriate conduct also undermines the trust of the public must be assessed on a case-by-case basis in the context of a proper understanding of the rules which apply to solicitors’ conduct.

The Court also considered Beckwith’s right to a private life.  It concluded that there can be no “hard and fast rule” either that all aspects of someone’s private life are liable to scrutiny, or that a regulator can never look at someone’s private life.  Rather, each case must be looked at individually and, in this case, someone can only be found to have acted without integrity, or in such a way as to undermine the public’s trust in the profession, if their conduct touched on their practise of the profession in a way which was “demonstrably relevant”.

The Court also gave a warning to professional regulators regarding any legal costs which they may seek to claim from a registered professional.  The Court said that it found the SRA’s costs in this case to be “alarming” and made the point that as the regulator is rarely ordered to pay legal costs when it is unsuccessful in disciplinary case, it must be mindful of the need to allow people who face regulatory complaints to “defend themselves without excessive cost”.

Perhaps one of the most interesting parts of the decision was the stark warning the Court gave to regulators, who it said “will do well to recognise that it is all too easy to be dogmatic without knowing it; popular outcry is not proof that a particular set of events gives rise to any matter falling within a regulator’s remit.” – A clear reminder to regulators that they must apply robust scrutiny to any alleged wrongdoing on the part of an individual, and that they should not bring proceedings solely on the basis of public opinion or stories in the press.

Whilst this decision demonstrates judicial criticism of the lack of rigour with which the SRA pursued these particular allegations, it would be wrong to think that it marks a backlash against regulators making findings against senior professionals where there are allegations of sexual misconduct.  As the Court rightly said, each case must be viewed on its own facts, and cases of sexual misconduct are often complex and multi-faceted.  It would be a misstep to think that, as a result of this ruling, the SRA and other regulators will now de-prioritise these cases. The #MeToo movement has solidified this issue as a permanent fixture on the agenda of regulators, and misconduct of this sort will continue to sit squarely within their remit. 

Charles Russell Speechlys LLP has devised a bespoke service known as R4 (Review, Report, Resolve, Respect) which combines specialist legal and non-legal support and advice for individuals and businesses which find themselves involved in cases such as this. Drawing expertise from across the firm, our legal support includes experts in employment law; reputation management and professional disciplinary proceedings. We have teamed up with Bell Yard Communications (public relations specialists) and HelloSelf (expert clinical therapists) to provide non-legal support and assistance. The service also provides advice on procedures and training which businesses can put in place in order to help to prevent issues such as this occurring in future. For more information about the services offered, contact Nick Hurley.