Beckwith's victorious fightback
Ex-Freshfields partner Ryan Beckwith has succeeded in an appeal in the High Court against the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal's finding against him.
A junior lawyer in his team, known as 'Person A', had complained to the Solicitors Regulation Authority that Beckwith took advantage of her while she was working out her notice period.
Beckwith, who was Person A's appraisal partner, admitted to kissing her in a pub following after-work drinks and then accompanying her in a taxi back to her home. He conceded to the tribunal that sexual activity then took place, something which he admitted was "extremely stupid" and that he would regret for the rest of his life.
But he claimed it was a mutual mistake and a "consensual sexual encounter between two adults".
Despite Beckwith's team's insistence that the issue of consent was central to the charges against him, the tribunal made no finding on the matter, saying it was "not an issue that needed to be determined". Instead the tribunal found that Person A was so drunk her decision-making ability was impaired, and that Beckwith should have known his conduct was inappropriate.
Ruling that his actions caused "harm to the reputation of the profession" and "significant harm" to Person A, it fined the married restructuring partner £35,000 and ordered him to pay costs of £200,000.
Beckwith resigned from Freshfields before the SDT's decision. "He has been crushed by this process" said his barrister, Alisdair Williamson QC.
The tribunal ruled that a fine, rather than the ban sought by the Solicitors Regulation Authority, was "appropriate and proportionate in the circumstances", explaining that there was no suggestion Beckwith had "coerced or manipulated Person A", and that Beckwith's conduct was caused "by a lapse in his judgment that was highly unlikely to be repeated".
The High Court has now overturned the SDT's decision. It found that the tribunal was wrong in ruling that Beckwith had breached Principle 2 of the SRA Principles 2011, by failing to act with integrity. The court said the tribunal had concluded, rightly, that no abuse of authority had occurred. "The requirement to act with integrity obliged the Appellant not to act so as to take unfair advantage of Person A by reason of his professional status," said the court. "On the findings made by the Tribunal, that had not happened.”
The High Court also ruled that the SDT was wrong to find that Beckwith had breached Principle 6 by undermining public trust in him and in the provision of legal services.
The court said that while Beckwith's conduct had affected his own reputation, the tribunal had provided "no explanation" as to how his conduct had affected either his "own reputation as a provider of legal services" or "the reputation of his profession."
The High Court therefore allowed the appeal, and set aside the order that Beckwith pay a fine of £35,000 and the SRA's costs of £200,000; describing the latter as an "alarming" sum.
"Mr Beckwith is pleased that the High Court has reversed the limited findings against him made by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal," said Beckwith's solicitor Nick Brett.
"We will look at the High Court’s judgment carefully before considering any next steps," a spokesman for the SRA told RollOnFriday.
Freshfields declined to comment.
For the full judgment, click here.