Partner to Pay Up: Beckwith avoids ban but not £235,000 bill

October 25, 2019

2 min read

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What's going on here?

The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) has ordered Ryan Beckwith, a (now former) senior partner at Magic Circle firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, to pay £235,000 after an investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct.

What does this mean?

There were two allegations of sexual misconduct involving a junior solicitor occurring in 2016 which were brought before the SDT by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA).

The SRA argued that Beckwith’s conduct was not appropriate for a partner on the basis that he, in a position of seniority, had initiated sexual activity where he ought to have known that his conduct was not wanted and/or that the junior was too intoxicated to properly consent. As such the SRA considered that Beckwith had failed to act in accordance with the principles set out in the SRA handbook, namely to act with integrity and in a way that maintains the trust that the public places in him and the legal profession.

Beckwith did not deny that sexual activity took place but denied allegations that he had initiated the activity and the reported level of intoxication, and thus this was merely a case of two consenting adults who had made a mistake.

What's the big picture effect?

The SDT made the decision to issue Beckwith with a fine and costs, but decided against suspension. Beckwith is therefore able to continue his work as a solicitor, however he has resigned from his position at Freshfields.

The decision could be considered surprising in light of the fact that the SDT last month imposed an 18-month suspension on a solicitor under similar circumstances. The SRA is reportedly considering appealing the decision as they regard it as inconsistent and overly lenient. An appeal would not be surprising here as within the SRA recently there has been a push to prosecute such cases of sexual misconduct. However, given that a very small number of cases have been prosecuted before, arguably the rules and sanctions imposed are not yet standard. However it could be argued that consistency in approach is therefore all the more important in order to lay the groundwork.

The successful prosecution has been regarded by some as a turning point in the way the SRA sees the boundary between work and private lives of solicitors. The SRA and SDT are increasingly willing to examine cases which would previously have been considered outside their scope. With increasing prosecutions in the area, firms may find themselves needing to do more by way of discipline, protection, and education. Freshfields for a start has stated that they have noted the ruling and are running a firm wide programme to ensure that values and behaviours are consistent across the firm.

Overall this is likely seen to be another step in the direction of #MeToo and a growing lack of tolerance for sexual misconduct.

Report written by Julie Lawford

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