In Beckwith v Solicitors Regulation Authority  EWHC 3231 (Admin), the High Court reversed the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal’s determination that a solicitor who had a consensual ‘sexual encounter’ with a junior colleague breached the SRA’s Code of Conduct.
The High Court was deeply critical of the SRA’s costs in bringing the proceedings, describing them as ‘alarming’.
In 2016, Mr Beckwith was a partner at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer. Colleague A was an associate in his department.
The SRA brought two allegations to the Tribunal:
- That on 6 or 7 May 2016 Mr Beckwith kissed or attempted to kiss Colleague A at a work event.
- That on 2 July 2016 Mr Beckwith had a sexual encounter with Colleague A at her home.
The Tribunal dismissed the first allegation. The second allegation was found proved, albeit the Tribunal did not accept the whole of the SRA’s case.
The ‘sexual encounter’ came after an evening of drinking with colleagues at a bar near Freshfields’ London office. Large amounts of alcohol were consumed. By midnight, Mr Beckwith and Colleague A were the only two still at the bar. They left in a taxi together and ultimately had a ‘sexual encounter’ in Colleague A’s bedroom.
The Tribunal found that Colleague A had not explicitly invited Mr Beckwith into her home – she had given him permission to come in to use the toilet only. However, there was no suggestion that the ‘sexual encounter’ had been non-consensual.
A breach of the Code of Conduct?
Mr Beckwith did not challenge the SDT’s factual findings. His appeal was on the grounds that the SDT was wrong to find that his conduct had breached principles 2 and 6 of the SRA Code of Conduct.
- Principle 2 states: you must act with integrity
- Principle 6 states: you must behave in a way that maintains the trust the public places in you and the provision of legal services
The High Court agreed with Mr Beckwith. The requirement to act with integrity had to be read in the context of the other requirements of the Code – it is not a freestanding requirement. Given that the Tribunal explicitly rejected the allegation that Mr Beckwith had abused his seniority over Colleague A, the finding that he had not acted with integrity was unsustainable. Similarly, in relation to Principle 6, Mr Beckwith had damaged his personal reputation, but that was quite distinct from damaging his professional reputation or the reputation of his profession.
The High Court observed that unlike the other Principles in the SRA Code of Conduct, Principles 2 and 6 have the capacity to extend beyond a solicitor’s practise of the law.
However, as the High Court put it:
'neither Principle 2 nor Principle 6 has unfettered application across all aspects of a solicitor's private life.'
Beckwith v Solicitors Regulation Authority  EWHC 3231 (Admin) at .
In an apparent reference to the ‘me too’ movement, the High Court stated:
'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.'
At Paragraph .
The SRA’s claimed costs were £343,957.08, of which the Tribunal ordered Mr Beckwith to pay £200,000. Given that Mr Beckwith’s appeal succeeded, the High Court set the costs order aside, but not before describing the SRA’s costs as ‘alarming’ and the Tribunal’s reasoning on costs as ‘not coherent’.
The allegations were relatively straightforward, and Mr Beckwith accepted large parts of his conduct. This is not the first time the SRA’s approach to costs has come in for criticism. The SRA would do well to reflect carefully on its costs in future proceedings.
The High Court’s judgment provides welcome clarity as to the correct approach to allegations arising in a professional’s private life. However, it is unlikely to cause the SRA or other regulators to retreat from investigating and prosecuting such cases. The High Court put a lot of weight on the Tribunal’s finding that Mr Beckwith had not abused his seniority in relation to Colleague A. She was junior to him, but her behaviour had not been influenced by the fact that he was her boss. She had recently resigned from Freshfields, having found a job at another firm. The drinks event on 1 July 2016 had been her leaving drinks. It is easy to see how, in a superficially similar case, the High Court would decline to interfere with a finding that a professional was in breach of their code of conduct.
Amy Woolfson is a barrister at 5SAH, she prosecutes and defends in a wide range of criminal cases, and has represented regulators and registrants in fitness to practise hearings. She has extensive experience of professional discipline and regulatory cases.