Barrister who smacked colleague on bottom “thought she was consenting”

Barrister: Least credible witness

The male barrister fined for whispering suggestively to a younger female colleague and then smacking her on the bottom thought she was consenting because she did not openly object, it has emerged.

The full ruling of the Bar disciplinary tribunal, which also revealed that Dominic Woolard prosecutes serious sexual offences, said either that he did not really believe this or that, if he did, it was not a reasonably held belief.

The brief summary of the findings against Mr Woolard published last week led to questions about whether a reprimand and £6,000 fine were sufficient punishment for the misconduct.

The tribunal noted that orders it made were not primarily punitive in nature “but should be directed to ensuring that there is no opportunity to repeat and offences and that, above all else, the reputation of the profession is maintained”.

The sanctions guidance issued by the Bar Tribunals & Adjudication Service says that the starting point for “minor offences of inappropriate sexual conduct in a professional context” should normally be a reprimand and a medium-level fine.

In mitigation, the tribunal noted that Mr Woolard admitted half of the 12 charges against him, “showed genuine remorse”, co-operated with the investigation, and provided character references from three female junior barristers.

Further, he has taken “voluntary steps to rectify the breach”, including resigning from chambers and undertaking counselling and “self-reflection”.

The aggravating factors were that his conduct would undermine the profession in the eyes of the public, particularly in light of his work for the Crown Prosecution Service, and there was a “significant impact” on the woman, ‘Ms A’, “both professionally and personally”. The conduct also involved an element of harassment.

Nonetheless, “taking account of the mitigation and the circumstances in which the incidents took place, the panel does not assess the conduct as being sufficiently serious to justify a suspension”.

The incidents all took place at the chambers’ Christmas party in December 2019. Ms A was a younger colleague who had had little previous contact with Mr Woolard.

He was 34 at the time. He was called in 2008 and then qualified as solicitor as he could not find a pupillage. He later requalified as a barrister and began practising in 2015.

The tribunal described him as the “least credible” of the six witnesses it heard from.

The party was held in chambers. Though both Ms A and Mr Woolard drank alcohol – he more than her in a quantity he said he was unaccustomed to at the time due to having two small children – the tribunal said drunkenness did not materially affect what happened.

After Ms A bent over the arm of a sofa to look for a piece of her Secret Santa gift that had been accidentally broken, Mr Woolard came over to help with the torch on his phone. She then found the piece and gave Mr Woolard a hug.

At some point after that, Mr Woolard grasped Ms A around the neck from behind and pulled her backwards so he could whisper in her ear “I really wanted to smack your arse”.

The tribunal rejected his contention that there was nothing sexual in touching her neck – he did not need to do it to whisper in her ear, it said – and described the move as “one of dominance”.

“The combination of the gratuitousness of the touch and its combination with a suggestive and sexualised comment are such that a reasonable person would conclude that the touch was sexual.”

Mr Woolard accepted that the contact was unwanted by Ms A but said he reasonably believed she was consenting given the earlier hug and the “generally light-hearted, playful atmosphere” at the party.

The panel had “no doubt” in finding he did not hold such a belief. “Consent involves making a decision by a person capable of making a decision. As Mr Woolard was well aware, Ms A was completely oblivious to the act about to happen to her.”

It added that, if it was wrong on this, the belief was not reasonably held.

Ms A said she was shocked and froze up in response. She said she made no reply or any other response, continuing the conversations she was having.

Less than five minutes later, Ms A felt a hard smack on her bottom. Again she did not react and again Mr Woolard said he thought she was consenting to it because of the hug and because she had not responded to the previous incident.

The panel ruled once more that either Mr Woolard did not believe this or that, if he did, it was unreasonable.

Ms A said she was deeply upset and went to cry in the bathroom. She then spent some time alone in the room being used for bags and coats before deciding to leave. She went to say goodbye to her colleagues and noticed Mr Woolard sitting in a chair in the clerks’ room.

She went round hugging everyone goodbye while trying to keep her distance from him. But as she was hugging a clerk, she felt Mr Woolard put his hands on her waist and pull her backwards onto his lap.

The clerk pulled Ms A away “and said words to the effect of ‘That’s enough of that’”.

She then left the party in a state of “confusion and distress”. She did not report what had happened because she did not want to spoil the party or “cause a fuss”.

Once more Mr Woolard argued, and the tribunal rejected, that he believed she was consenting to this.

The panel accepted that the events were a one-off and “grossly out of character” for Mr Woolard.

It issued the following reprimand: “Mr Woolard, you have been found to have committed 12 charges of professional misconduct. The words you said to Ms A, the touching, pulling and slapping of her in a sexual manner were degrading and offensive.

“They should a selfish focus on your own sexual desires, a wholly inappropriate absence of respect for Ms A and a lack of awareness of the impact of your actions.

“Your acts were upsetting to Ms A and had a negative impact upon her, for which you must take sole responsibility. These are serious matters which undermine public confidence in you as a practitioner and in the Bar as a profession.

“You should be in no doubt as to the fact that behaviour of this type is wholly unacceptable. We hope and expect that this reprimand ensures that there is no repetition of this entirely reprehensible misconduct.”

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