03 Dec 2020

The Ryan Beckwith judgment has protected the legal profession's high ethical standards

Integrity continues to underpin relations between junior and senior lawyers if it relates back to conduct rules, argues Graham Reid

‘Tribunal dubs top UK lawyer's sexual misconduct as spontaneous lack of judgement’ was The Global Legal Post’s headline back in February.

Ryan Beckwith’s case before the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) attracted considerable attention at the time, sparking debate over the appropriateness of his actions during a drunken sexual encounter with a junior colleague.

Ten months later, the success of Beckwith’s appeal to the Divisional Court has led to a ruling that will affect the approach of the SDT and the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) to similar allegations in the future.

One message that emerges clearly from the judgment is that allegations of acting without integrity and harming the reputation of the solicitors’ profession must now be tightly connected to the SRA’s rules. The SDT does not have carte blanche to decide what ‘integrity’ means. Its meaning must be drawn from the rules themselves. This reflects the fact that the obligation to act with integrity is a sort of meta-rule. It’s the rule that says one must obey all the other rules.

In real terms, this means a solicitor accused of acting without integrity can expect to see such an allegation particularised in terms of some other rule in the SRA Handbook or, now, the SRA Standards and Regulations. That is why Beckwith succeeded on appeal – the tribunal had found that he did not abuse his position of power and authority in relation to his colleague, Person A, and without such an abuse it could not be said that he took unfair advantage of her by reason of his professional status.

The Divisional Court adopted a similar approach to the alleged breach of Principle 6 (‘behave in a way that maintains the trust the public places in you and in the provision of legal services’), noting that this principle is ‘apt to become unruly’ unless it is closely informed by a ‘careful and realistic consideration of the [SRA’s rules]’.

The final argument raised by Beckwith failed. It concerned his Article 8 ECHR rights. He said that the conduct complained of took place in his private life and the SRA’s rules were too broadly drafted for him to have the necessary degree of certainty whether or not they applied in a given situation (and therefore those rules infringed his Article 8 rights). The Divisional Court disagreed, concluding that the requisite certainty could be found as long as these somewhat fuzzily defined principles were informed as to content by the remainder of the rules.

The decision can therefore be seen as limiting the freedom of movement of the SRA and SDT when it comes to allegations of integrity and harm to the profession’s reputation. Indeed, there are some passages that even read as admonishment of the regulator and tribunal. For example, the judgment said: ‘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’.

But this would overlook the most important parts of the decision. In a legal context, it is not Beckwith’s success that matters, or indeed the events that night in July 2016, but rather the court’s comments concerning the kinds of behaviour that can amount to professional misconduct.

The court confirmed that the rules can be directed to a solicitor’s private life, but only when the conduct realistically touches on her practise of the profession. It added that the public had a legitimate expectation that junior members of the professional would be treated with respect by other members and that a failure to do so could harm the reputation of the profession, and it said that an abuse of a position of authority or power can amount to a breach of the duty of fair treatment. This is currently formulated as: ‘You do not abuse your position by taking unfair advantage of clients or others.’

The clearest message from Beckwith’s case therefore is that the high ethical standards of the solicitors' profession remain intact. The golden rule still applies: ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’.

Integrity must underpin relations between junior and senior staff, it applies across hierarchies of power and authority and can even extend into a solicitor’s private life, provided the behaviour relevantly engages one of the other standards of behaviour necessarily implicit in the SRA’s rules.

Graham Reid is a legal director, professional regulation at RPC