A partner at City giant Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer should not have had sex with a drunken junior lawyer after a night out, the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal ruled yesterday as it fined him £35,000.
The case of Ryan Beckwith has been covered extensively in the national media, and the tribunal was told that he has seen his career turn to “dust”.
He was also handed a costs bill of £200,000, a huge sum for a prosecution by the Solicitors Regulation Authority, which is now considering whether to appeal the ruling for being too lenient.
Mr Beckwith has resigned from Freshfields, where he had been a restructuring and insolvency partner.
The SDT cleared him of accusations that he tried to kiss ‘Person A’ after attending a celebratory event at a pub in Oxford in May 2016.
However, two months later, after an evening of drinking in The Harrow pub near the firm’s Fleet Street offices, they took an Uber to her home in west London.
Person A claimed he tricked his way into her flat by claiming he needed to use the toilet and the next thing she could remember was Mr Beckwith on her bed naked from the waist down.
He claimed the night they spent together at her flat was “a consensual sexual encounter between two adults”.
While making no finding on the question of consent, the SDT said Mr Beckwith knew or ought to have known that Person A was heavily intoxicated to the extent that she was vulnerable and/or her judgment and decision-making ability was impaired, and that his conduct was inappropriate.
In doing so, he breached SRA principle 2 (acting with integrity) and principle 6 (behaving in a way that maintains the trust the public places in you and in the provision of legal services).
Reports said the father of one hugged and kissed his wife, with both in tears, after the decision, which followed a nine-day hearing.
Alisdair Williamson QC, representing Mr Beckwith, said: “The finding renders all dust for Mr Beckwith. At the moment all is dust and bleak for Mr Beckwith.
“He is a man who will bear this mark forever, he is a man, who other than this blemish, was a shining example to the profession.”
Person A initially did not report the incident, either to the firm or to authorities. Giving evidence from behind a screen, she said: “I thought a lot about reporting it to the police… you read a lot about how awful it is doing that.”
She later reported the incident to Freshfields, which launched an investigation that led to Mr Beckwith receiving a final written warning.
Person A decided to escalate the incident at that point, writing to the firm’s senior partner, Edward Braham, to complain that her complaint had not been taken seriously enough.
The full ruling will be published in the coming weeks, after which Mr Beckwith will have 21 days to lodge any appeal.
An SRA spokesman said: “We welcome the SDT’s decision to find that Ryan Beckwith has acted without integrity and in a way that diminishes the trust the public places in him and the profession.
“On the face of it, given this finding, we are surprised by the sanction. However we will need to review the tribunal’s written judgment when it is published before reaching a view.”
Mr Braham said: “We note the ruling of the SDT tribunal earlier today. Ryan Beckwith has been on indefinite leave from the firm for some time and has now resigned as a partner with immediate effect.
“The firm takes all complaints extremely seriously. We want a culture that is welcoming and allows our people to flourish, and we work hard to achieve that.
“We are running a firm-wide programme to ensure our values and behaviours are consistently experienced across the firm, and I am confident that we will continue to achieve change where it is needed.”
According to Andrew Katzen, head of regulatory law at London firm Hickman & Rose, the case marked a “turning point” in the way professional regulatory bodies tackled the “increasingly blurred boundary between private and working lives”.
He explained: “The allegations against Mr Beckwith were extremely serious. But they are allegations that, only a few years ago, would likely have been rejected by the Solicitors Regulation Authority as being outside their remit.
“Changing social attitudes to sexual behaviour embodied by the ‘Me Too’ movement mean that this is no longer the case.”
Mr Katzen said this was the first in “a line of tribunal hearings”, in which male partners of City and US law firms were accused of rape, sexual harassment and attempted resultant cover-ups.
But he said, there were questions about whether the system could deal with these types of cases fairly: “Unlike a criminal trial, an individual’s guilt in these cases will be determined without a jury and on the balance of probabilities. There are also significant differences around disclosure of contentious material.
“The challenge is to ensure the SDT deals with these cases effectively by properly balancing the public interest in examining these issues against the individuals’ right to a fair hearing.”