A former partner at a top City law firm with a history of drink-driving has been given a suspended sentence by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT), following a conviction for drink-driving with his five-year-old son in the car.
Publishing its judgment last week, the tribunal suspended the three-year suspension, provided there was no further drink-driving conviction.
Former Fieldfisher partner, Bartholomew Michael John Harte – known as Michael Harte – was alleged by the Solicitors Regulation Authority to have breached Principles 1 (uphold the rule of law and the proper administration of justice), 2 (act with integrity), and 6 (behave in a way that maintains the trust the public places in you and in the provision of legal services).
Mr Harte admitted the allegation, which followed his criminal conviction for failing to give a specimen after being stopped by the police.
IP specialist Mr Harte was made a Fieldfisher (then Field Fisher Waterhouse) corporate and commercial partner in November 2011. He was named a rising star by Thompson Reuters’ Super Lawyers list in 2013-14.
As a result of his driving conviction, Mr Harte resigned his partnership at Fieldfisher with effect from 14 July 2015.
He received a suspended custodial sentence of 16 weeks, was given 250 hours of community service, and was fined £2,000. He was disqualified from driving for four years.
The sentencing court explained the custodial sentence was because a five-year-old child was in the car; Mr Harte was consuming alcohol; the roadside breath test suggested he was heavily intoxicated; and that the offence had been aggravated by relevant previous convictions.
The SDT recorded that Mr Harte had a conviction for drink-driving in November 2008, for which he had been disqualified for 18 months and fined £1,000.
In mitgation, it was stated that Mr Harte, the youngest of nine siblings and from a “quite humble” background, had been drinking heavily the previous night and would not have put his son at risk if he had understood he was over the drink-drive limit the following day.
The SDT found that only part of Principle 1 had been breached by the respondent, accepting Mr Harte’s argument that while he had breached the rule of law, his behaviour had not interfered with the administration of justice.
The tribunal determined that the motivation for Mr Harte’s conduct was “emotional distress” and recorded his “actions had been spontaneous but had involved a breach of trust in that he was looking after a child at the relevant time. In short, the respondent had a great amount of culpability for the events”.
It said that “aggravating factors in this case were that a criminal offence had been involved and it was repeated misconduct”.
However, the judgment recorded that: “The tribunal was of the view that this was a very serious matter which should attract something more serious than a financial sanction but determined that the allegation did not merit strike off.
“The respondent’s actions had not taken place during the course of his practice as a solicitor and although the reputation of the profession had been damaged it had not been damaged in relation to his professional practice.”
Since “the seriousness of misconduct committed by the respondent was not at the very highest level”, a suspension was proportionate and “a limited suspension itself suspended for a period would mark the tribunal’s proper censure of the respondent”.
The SDT criticised a 14-month delay by the SRA in making its Rule 5 statement as “unacceptable”.
The tribunal ordered that Mr Harte should be suspended for three years, “such suspension to be itself suspended unless the respondent was convicted of a further drink-driving offence”.
It ordered costs of £3,044.50 be paid by Mr Harte.
Mr Harte’s LinkedIn profile yesterday had not been updated to reflect his departure from Fieldfisher. But it had his occupation from July 2015 listed as “director, head of business affairs, media production, Los Angeles, California”.
A spokesman for Fieldfisher declined to comment on the SDT ruling and confirmed that Mr Harte had left the firm last month.