City partner rebuked for trial livestreaming breach

Sharp: Sent ruling to the SRA

A City partner who allowed a trial to be livestreamed to observers outside the UK without the court’s permission has been rebuked by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA).

Ziva Robertson, a partner in the London office of US firm McDermott Will & Emery, had wrongly told her client in a high-profile but socially distanced libel trial in July 2020 that they could share the Zoom link of the proceedings with third parties.

The firm reported its conduct to the SRA and the High Court ordered that the regulator be sent a copy of its judgment on the failure “so that this court’s views of the seriousness of the breaches in this case can be made known to it”.

The rebuke was contained in a regulatory settlement agreement published today by the SRA that means the solicitor will not face a disciplinary tribunal.

Up to nine individuals around the world were able to watch the first three days of the five-day trial via Zoom.

The trial judge, Mr Justice Warby, found that this breached section 41 of the Criminal Justice Act 1925 (the ban on taking photographs in court), and/or section 9 of the Contempt of Court Act 1981 (ban on sound recordings), and/or his own order.

He referred the case to Dame Victoria Sharp, president of the Queen’s Bench Division. She said McDermott Will & Emery initially failed to acknowledge the seriousness of the breaches but this then changed and Ms Robertson – who had overall conduct of the matter – “frankly accepted her responsibility for what happened” and made a full and unreserved apology.

The court accepted, as did Warby J, that “this was not a case of deliberate defiance of the court’s order”.

Ms Robertson told the court that she had initially advised her client that he should not disseminate the Zoom link but then “gained the mistaken impression that the arrangements for the trial had evolved” and that he could.

In the agreement, she admitted advising her clients that they could act in a way which she ought to have known would result in breach of the terms of a court order.

Further, her initial letter to the court was misleading in stating – as a result of wording added by counsel – that her clients had not disseminated the Zoom link until she advised them on 20 July that they could do so; in fact, her client had already told her the day before that they had shared the Zoom link with a third party.

In mitigation, Ms Robertson said her conduct was inadvertent – the incorrect advice was given “during a demanding trial” – and that she was remorseful. The incident had caused her “stress and anxiety”.

There was, she went on, “a general confusion and uncertainty surrounding the differences between remote and hybrid trials in the first stage of the Covid-19 restrictions”.

In relation to the letter to the court, she had relied on advice from counsel and “did not appreciate that the wording they suggested adding could be misleading”.

The SRA said a written rebuke was the appropriate outcome because “there was no lasting significant harm to consumers or third parties, there is a very low risk of repetition, and some public sanction is required to uphold public confidence in the delivery of legal services”.

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