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27 November 2020

High Court overturns misconduct finding against former Freshfields partner Beckwith

Boundary between private and professional lives of solicitors is clarified after quashing of fine for inappropriate sexual conduct

By John Malpas

The High Court in London

The High Court Shutterstock

Former Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer partner Ryan Beckwith has successfully appealed a misconduct finding against him after the High Court ruled his ‘inappropriate sexual activity’ with an associate did not breach professional rules.

In a finding that one commentator said brought “welcome clarity” to the issue of where a solicitor’s private life becomes a disciplinary matter, Dame Victoria Sharp and Mr Justice Swift of the Divisional Court today reversed the findings made against Beckwith, quashed his £35,000 fine and overturned an ‘alarming’ £200,000 costs order made against him.

The fine had been imposed by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) after a seven-day hearing in October last year when it found that he had engaged in an inappropriate sexual encounter with a junior female colleague in her flat after an evening out drinking with her and other Freshfields team members. 

In today’s judgment, the court rejected the SDT’s finding that Beckwith had breached professional rules by failing to act with integrity or behave in a way that maintained public trust.

The judges said the SDT ‘fell into error’ by ruling that Beckwith had lacked professional integrity given that the sexual activity was deemed to be consensual and the tribunal had concluded he had not exploited his professional status to take unfair advantage of the associate.

The SDT’s assertion Beckwith had ‘fallen below accepted standards’ was ‘not coherent’, the court ruled, adding: ‘Whatever "standards" the Tribunal was referring to... were not ones properly derived from the [Solicitors’] Handbook’.

The judges went on to describe the tribunal’s claim Beckwith had failed to behave in a way that maintained public trust as ‘flawed’ adding that ‘there is a qualitative distinction between conduct that does or may tend to undermine public trust in the solicitor's profession and conduct that would be generally regarded as wrong, inappropriate or even for the person concerned, disgraceful’.

The judgment warned: '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.'

Graham Reid, a professional regulation specialist at RPC, said the ruling had brought “welcome clarity” to “three interrelated and rather fuzzy concepts: the duty to act with integrity, the duty to maintain public trust in the profession, and the extent to which these duties reach into the private life of a solicitor”. 

He said it was clear that “a failure of integrity and harm to public trust in the profession must be measured only by reference to the rest of the SRA's rules” and there was “no room for a free-standing concept of ‘integrity’".

But he added that the judgment “puts beyond doubt that the disrespectful treatment by solicitors of more junior colleagues, and the abuse of positions of power and authority, can amount to professional misconduct. The question will always be whether or not the facts support such a conclusion.”

In a statement, Beckwith's solicitor, partner Nick Brett of London firm Brett Wilson, said the former Freshfields partner, who resigned from the firm when the tribunal found against him last October, was “pleased that the High Court has reversed the limited findings against him made by the SDT”

A spokesperson for the SRA said: “We will look at the High Court’s judgment carefully before considering any next steps.”

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