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‘Popular outcry is not proof’: Beckwith’s #MeToo decision overturned in controversial court judgment

In what has been described as a landmark ruling, former Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer partner Ryan Beckwith has prevailed in his appeal in the High Court against the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal’s findings against him in a high-profile sexual misconduct case.

The Queen’s Bench Division today (27 November) overturned the tribunal’s October 2019 findings that Beckwith’s behaviour with a junior lawyer was in breach of principles two and six of the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s code of conduct, requiring solicitors to ‘act with integrity’ and ‘behave in a way that maintains the trust the public places in you and in the provision of legal services’. 

Beckwith lodged the appeal against liability and costs awards with the High Court in February after the SRA, which brought the case to the SDT for prosecution in June 2018, said it would not be appealing the sanctions handed down of a £35,000 fine and an order to pay legal costs of £200,000.

The judgment of the president of the Queen’s Bench Division, Lady Justice Sharp DBE, and the judge in charge of the Administrative Court (Beckwith v Solicitors Regulation Authority [2020] EWHC 3231 (Admin)), Mr Justice Swift, overturned findings that Beckwith had breached Principles 2 and 6 of the SRA principles, reversed his fine and quashed the costs order.

The case centred on two alcohol-fuelled incidents in 2016 with junior lawyer, referred to as ‘Person A’– that Beckwith kissed or attempted to kiss Person A over whom he was in a position of seniority, and that he initiated and/or engaged in sexual activity with the same person. Both Beckwith and Person A, then an associate at the Magic Circle firm in the restructuring team, were allegedly intoxicated at celebratory events organised by Freshfields.

The SDT rejected the SRA’s case that Beckwith had abused his position of authority but found he had breached both principles because his behaviour in engaging in sexual activity was ‘inappropriate’.

The court’s latest decision in favour of Beckwith is bound to be divisive, given the furore caused at the time by Beckwith being fined instead of banned from practising law as the #MeToo movement raged on.

The appeal focused on whether the SDT had fallen into error by not first deciding whether or not Beckwith’s actions amounted to ‘professional misconduct’; and whether the findings of fact amounted to a breach of either or both principles and provisions around Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (the right to a private life).

The court went on to describe the costs incurred by the SRA as ‘alarming’ and expressed considerable sympathy for the points that the ‘Appellant has raised’ on that issue.

Beckwith was represented by Nick Brett of Brett Wilson, who instructed Alisdair Williamson QC at Three Raymond Buildings. The SRA was represented by Capsticks, instructing Riel Karmy-Jones QC of Red Lion Chambers and Rupert Allen of Fountain Court.

Brett Wilson said in a post on its website:  ‘This important judgment takes some large strides towards providing the kind of certainty needed in the regulation of the conduct of legal professionals outside the workplace in the modern world. Sexual relationships between colleagues are, and always have been, a part of life in the workplace. This is unlikely to change. Many such relationships are perfectly functional and often lead to long-term unions. Some may be more dysfunctional, but nonetheless consensual regardless of rank and status. Consenting sexual activity is a fact of life and ought not to attract regulatory intervention without very good cause.’

The court concluded: ‘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.’