Big fine for solicitor’s sexual harassment “a clear message”, says SDT

Mahiki: Nightclub hosted SCL event

A male City solicitor who sexually harassed a female solicitor at a work event has been fined £30,000 in what a tribunal said was a “clear message” that such behaviour is “completely unacceptable”.

The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) rejected the submission of Daniel Paul Hugh Hutchings’ counsel that comments such as “you’ve got a great bum” and “look at your tits” were not sexually motivated.

But it considered that the reputation of the profession did not require a “short” suspension. The fine was reduced from £52,000 because of his means.

Mr Hutchings, who qualified in 2010, was a solicitor at City firm Taylor Wessing at the time of the Society of Construction Lawyers’ annual lunch in 2020. The lunch was followed by a social event in the evening at the Mahiki nightclub in London’s Mayfair, sponsored by various barristers’ chambers.

The SDT heard that Mr Hutchings, who was drunk and unsteady on his feet, approached ‘Person A’, whom he did not know. She was another member of the society and he introduced himself as a solicitor.

He pointed to and stared at Person A’s breasts and bottom, saying “You’re really fit, aren’t you?”, “You’ve got a great bum”, “Look at your tits” and “Look at your boobs”. He also asked if she had a boyfriend, to which she replied she did.

Person A told him that she did not want to hear such things and that he was acting inappropriately.

Mr Hutchings put his hand on or around her waist on several occasions. She removed his hand each time, telling him that she did not consent to him touching her.

The evidence of ‘Witness B’, a paralegal who was with Person A, was that Mr Hutchings seemed “fixated” with Person A.

Person A twice moved away from Mr Hutchings but each time he came back and continued to talk to and touch her. Person A and Witness B eventually moved to a different floor of the club away from the event.

Mr Hutchings chose not to be cross-examined, which the SDT said “substantially reduced the weight” it attached to his written evidence. But the tribunal did not draw an adverse inference from his refusal to give evidence.

His counsel, Greg Treverton-Jones KC, accepted the solicitor’s words were “sexualised”, but sought to distinguish that from ‘sexual motivation’.

The SDT did not agree, finding this “the clearest case of sexual harassment”.

It explained: “There was no other reason for Mr Hutchings to ask Person A, who he had never met before, whether she had a boyfriend. There was no other reason why he would make remarks about her body or why he would point and stare at those areas of her body.”

Mr Hutchings claimed he had touched Person A only in an attempt to de-escalate the situation. The SDT said he could have done that without touching her. “Mr Hutchings could have apologised for his behaviour or simply respected Person A’s wishes and left her alone.

“Instead, he continued with his sexualised language and repeatedly touched Person A around the waist despite Person A being clear that she did not want him to do this.

“The tribunal was entirely satisfied on the balance of probabilities that Mr Hutchings’ actions in touching Person A on the waist were sexually motivated in that he was seeking sexual gratification or a sexual relationship with Person A.”

Mr Hutchings also denied that his conduct showed a lack of integrity. Again, the SDT disagreed. His conduct, including “the fact he would not take ‘no’ for an answer”, was a “significant departure from the ethical standards of the profession”.

It went on: “His behaviour had been appalling in circumstances where the public would expect solicitors to behave professionally.”

In mitigation, Mr Treverton-Jones said Mr Hutchings offered a heartfelt apology and was “mortified” about what he had done. In every other respect, Mr Hutchings was “a decent, kind and likeable young man”.

Mr Hutchings had also suffered “devastating” career consequences. He had lost his chance of promotion and subsequently lost his job. He had joined a new firm and needed to rebuild his career from scratch. If he was suspended, he would lose his job.

In deciding sanction, the SDT said the misconduct was mitigated by the fact that “although there was more than one encounter, each was of very short duration in the context of a previously unblemished career”.

It continued: “The tribunal took full account of the character references which had been submitted and recognised that Mr Hutchings was otherwise held in high regard.

“Mr Hutchings had taken steps to address his consumption of alcohol, which undoubtedly had played a part in his decision making on the evening in question.”

The SDT said it considered whether a short period of suspension would be appropriate but “was satisfied that the reputation of the profession or the protection of the public did not, in this case, justify a suspension from practice”.

As well as the length of the encounter, it took account of the fact that the harassment was “not at the highest end of the scale of severity, within the context of sexual misconduct”, and there was no power imbalance or abuse of position either.

There was nothing in the SDT sanctions guidance or from any High Court decision on solicitors’ misconduct that required a suspension in cases of this nature, the tribunal added.

“There was a clear need, having regard to the reputation of the profession and to the protection of the public, for the tribunal to send the message that this sort of behaviour was completely unacceptable.

“Members of the public, including other professionals, should be able to attend professional events without being concerned that they would be subjected to sexual harassment by a solicitor.”

As well as the fine of £52,000, reduced to £30,000, Mr Hutchings was also ordered to pay costs of £18,000.

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