The “extremely drunk” senior partner of a London law firm has been fined £10,000 for touching a paralegal on the bottom and kissing her on the neck while sitting next to her in a bar.
The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) also criticised the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s (SRA) approach to the prosecution and the costs it sought to recover.
In February 2018, Geoffrey Howard Julian Critchlow, who has been in practice for 36 years, had “an extended lunch at a wine bar in London” with two colleagues.
At around 5pm, a friend of Mr Critchlow’s and client of the firm joined them, and at some point after 7pm, the solicitor invited other members of the firm to come and join them – five people, including ‘Person A’, a recently recruited paralegal, did so.
Mr Critchlow said he was already drunk when Person A arrived “but became significantly more inebriated thereafter”. The SRA accepted that he was “extremely drunk” at the time.
He admitted touching Person A on the leg on more than once, rubbing her back, kissing the back of her neck, resting his head on her shoulder and touching her bottom.
He accepted that “he ought to have known that such conduct was not wanted or invited”.
The SDT said he had shown a lack of integrity and had failed to behave in a way that maintained the trust the public placed in him and in the provision of legal services.
The fact he was senior partner and she was a young paralegal who had just joined the firm was an aggravating factor, but on the other side the SDT said Mr Critchlow immediately recognised that his behaviour was unacceptable and should not have occurred.
He self-reported to the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) within six weeks, fully apologised to Person A and his firm paid for her to have independent legal advice concerning the incident.
When she left the firm shortly afterwards, his firm paid her £13,000 as part of a settlement agreement.
Mr Critchlow was at the time senior partner and COLP of Al Bawardi Critchlow Solicitors – since renamed Costigan King – and is now a non-executive director and consultant.
After the incident, he confessed to not recalling what he had done, but apologised to Person A for his “shocking behaviour” and told her she could work with one of the other partners.
Person A explained she felt “violated” and that the incident had made her lose trust in going to a new firm.
In mitigation, Mr Critchlow accepted that his behaviour was inexcusable but being drunk “provided an explanation of the conduct that those who knew him very well described as being wholly inconsistent with the man that they knew”.
His counsel, Alexandra Felix, spelled out the ongoing professional consequences he had suffered because of publicity about the prosecution: “His involvement in committees, in speaking at seminars and his taking part in adjudications were all impacted because he was really persona non grata.
“It meant that the firm was perhaps not getting all the cases it might have had. The matter had been used wholly inappropriately; on one occasion in a bid to try and withhold fees and on another occasion a litigant in person decided to notify [his] client of the matter.”
Ms Felix also highlighted that Mr Critchlow voluntarily undertook counselling following the incident. He “tightly controlled any consumption of alcohol in professional circumstances and was now extremely conscious of his conduct in any social situation to ensure there was no repetition of the inappropriate conduct”.
He and his partners had also reflected on the firm’s working practices “to ensure it attained the highest standards of wellbeing, diversity and inclusion and to that end they liaised with independent lawyers, they updated their anti-harassment and bullying section of the office manual, and introduced male and female champions so that anyone with concerns could raise them privately in a supportive environment”.
There had also been in-house training to prevent discrimination, and the firm “revisited the planning and nature of social events”.
The tribunal expressed “considerable sympathy” for Person A and concluded that the misconduct fell within the category of “more serious” and that a fine at Level 3 (of five) was appropriate, setting the figure at £10,000.
However, it slashed the SRA’s claim for £22,500 in costs to £8,000. The SRA said it was “a coincidence” that the £18,500 of fees claimed for its external solicitors, Capsticks, came out at exactly the same figure as the fixed fee the pair had agreed.
But the SDT described the schedule of costs filed by the SRA as being “of very little use” because it did not say what hourly rate was used by the different levels of fee-earners, contained no specific detail of the work done and did not explain why there was so much partner involvement “for such a straightforward case”.
“This was a point that has been made in numerous previous cases,” the SDT observed.
It also strongly criticised the SRA for only withdrawing on the eve of July’s hearing the allegation that Mr Critchlow “knew” that his conduct was not wanted or invited, rather than ought to have known.
This was on the basis that the allegation was not specifically put to the solicitor at the start of the process and the tribunal said that, to refuse the application would be to change, arguably significantly, the nature of the case he expected to face.
The ruling said: “The tribunal expressed its displeasure in the way that this case had been prosecuted…
“It was an allegation that on the face of it had been hanging over [Mr Critchlow’s] head for far longer than was necessary and to make an application of such importance so shortly before the final hearing of this case showed both a lack of respect to the tribunal and the fairness of the process generally.”