27 November 2020 14:40
A former magic circle partner who was fined £35,000 last year after being accused of sexual misconduct has won his appeal and overturned a £200,000 costs order described by the court as as 'alarming'. Ryan Beckwith – who resigned from Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer last October – was found to have breached SRA principles 2 and 6 after spending the night with a junior colleague in 2016. However in Beckwith v Solicitors Regulation Authority, the High Court today overturned the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal's decision. The High Court said the tribunal had been wrong to find that Beckwith had failed to act with integrity, thus breaching Principle 2. It stated that the requirement to act with integrity obliged Beckwith 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. The tribunal's final statement that the appellant had "fallen below accepted standards" is not coherent. Whatever "standards" the tribunal was referring to as ones which identified what, in the circumstances of this case, the obligation to act with integrity required, were not ones properly derived from the handbook.' The SDT's conclusion that Beckwith undermined public trust was also 'flawed, and cannot stand', the High Court ruled. While '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… the facts as found and assessed by the tribunal are not capable of supporting the conclusion that the appellant acted in breach of Principle 6.' Beckwith's actions affected his own reputation, the judgment stated, '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.' In his appeal, Beckwith also argued that the SDT's findings had breached his right to respect for private life guaranteed by article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The High Court said there can be no 'hard and fast rule' either that regulation may never be directed to a person's private life, or that any/every aspect of her private life is liable to scrutiny.
The Queen's Bench Division today (27 November) overturned the tribunal's October 2019 findings that Beckwith's behaviour with a junior lawyer was in breach of principles two and six of the Solicitors Regulation Authority's code of conduct, requiring solicitors to 'act with integrity' and 'behave in a way that maintains the trust the public places in you and in the provision of legal services'. Beckwith lodged the appeal against liability and costs awards with the High Court in February after the SRA, which brought the case to the SDT for prosecution in June 2018, said it would not be appealing the sanctions handed down of a £35,000 fine and an order to pay legal costs of £200,000. The judgment of the president of the Queen's Bench Division, Lady Justice Sharp DBE, and the judge in charge of the Administrative Court (Beckwith v Solicitors Regulation Authority  EWHC 3231 (Admin)), Mr Justice Swift, overturned findings that Beckwith had breached Principles 2 and 6 of the SRA principles, reversed his fine and quashed the costs order. The case centred on two alcohol-fuelled incidents in 2016 with junior lawyer, referred to as 'Person A'– that Beckwith kissed or attempted to kiss Person A over whom he was in a position of seniority, and that he initiated and/or engaged in sexual activity with the same person. Both Beckwith and Person A, then an associate at the Magic Circle firm in the restructuring team, were allegedly intoxicated at celebratory events organised by Freshfields. The SDT rejected the SRA's case that Beckwith had abused his position of authority but found he had breached both principles because his behaviour in engaging in sexual activity was 'inappropriate'. The court's latest decision in favour of Beckwith is bound to be divisive, given the furore caused at the time by Beckwith being fined instead of banned from practising law as the #MeToo movement raged on. The appeal focused on whether the SDT had fallen into error by not first deciding whether or not Beckwith's actions amounted to 'professional misconduct'; and whether the findings of fact amounted to a breach of either or both principles and provisions around Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (the right to a private life). The court went on to describe the costs incurred by the SRA as 'alarming' and expressed considerable sympathy for the points that the 'Appellant has raised' on that issue. Beckwith was represented by Nick Brett of Brett Wilson, who instructed Alisdair Williamson QC at Three Raymond Buildings. The SRA was represented by Capsticks, instructing Riel Karmy-Jones QC of Red Lion Chambers and Rupert Allen of Fountain Court. Brett Wilson said in a post on its website: 'This important judgment takes some large strides towards providing the kind of certainty needed in the regulation of the conduct of legal professionals outside the workplace in the modern world. Sexual relationships between colleagues are, and always have been, a part of life in the workplace. This is unlikely to change. Many such relationships are perfectly functional and often lead to long-term unions. Some may be more dysfunctional, but nonetheless consensual regardless of rank and status. Consenting sexual activity is a fact of life and ought not to attract regulatory intervention without very good cause.' The court concluded: 'Regulators 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.' [email protected]