The High Court has rejected an appeal against a £20,000 fine imposed on a male law firm owner who said “mmm, I like what I see” to a young woman applying for a paralegal position.
Mr Justice Jay also refused a cross-appeal from the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), which argued that the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) should have suspended Victor Nwosu.
He described the fine as “on the lenient side” – and that many other SDT panels may have suspended the solicitor – but said it was justified.
Mr Nwosu, admitted in 2005, owns Dylan Conrad Kreolie in north London. He interviewed Person A for a paralegal role in April 2018. Jay J said she was aged 22 and “had a glittering CV” including a first-class law degree.
Her account was “to some extent corroborated by close to contemporaneous messaging to her then boyfriend on WhatsApp”.
There were “potential inconsistencies and lacunae” in her account but the SDT’s assessment was that she was “credible, consistent, reliable and persuasive”.
Among the allegations made by the SRA and upheld by the SDT, were that Mr Nwosu said words to the effect of “mmm, I like what I see”, and described Person A as “beautiful”, “very beautiful”, “pretty” or “very pretty” on more than one occasion.
Mr Nwosu also asked her if she had boyfriend or a brother, and told her that, if she got the job, she would have to wear skirts and high heels.
Jay J said the solicitor “did himself no favours in cross-examination” before the SDT and “must have come across as somewhat arrogant and entitled”. His personal attacks on Person A and her integrity were “misplaced”.
The judge said his strategy of calling Person A an outright liar “was, at best, high risk” – although he acknowledged “there was no room for honest mistake in relation to the multiple ‘you’re very beautiful’ remarks”.
Mr Nwosue’s case was “undoubtedly harmed” by a memorandum entitled ‘The firm’s dress code’, in which prohibited female employees at his law firm from wearing ‘cleavage baring’ tops.
Jay J went on: “And then this: ‘We should always be well presented because it is very unprofessional for colleagues to be baring skin inappropriately like people working in clubs or strippers.’ This memorandum speaks for itself.”
The SDT found that Mr Nwosu had committed “misconduct, in substance sexual misconduct”. He was fined £20,000, after his means were taken into account, and ordered to pay £23,550 in costs.
Among Mr Nwosu’s grounds of appeal were that the SDT had not applied the correct standard of proof in choosing the civil rather than criminal standard, had not given “adequate regard” to his good character, and had imposed an “excessive or disproportionate” sanction.
Jay J said the SRA applied to the SDT well after the change to the civil standard of proof applied.
While it would have been “preferable” for the SDT to set out its understanding of the legal position, “namely that good character evidence is relevant to the issues of both propensity and credibility”, it was not a “fundamental legal requirement”.
It was clear “from all the available material that the SDT must have had the appellant’s good character well in mind and have understood the weight capable of being placed on it”, he said.
On sanction, Jay J said that the SDT “had regard to all the salient features of this case, including the appellant’s high culpability, the fact that this was determined and calculated misconduct, albeit spontaneous, and the severe impact on Person A”.
He was “not persuaded” by counsel for the SRA’s argument that Mr Nwosu should have been suspended.
“I would be prepared to say that the SDT’s sanction in this case was on the lenient side; and that had the appellant been suspended for three months, any appeal on his part would have encountered clear difficulties.
“I suspect that many SDTs would have suspended the appellant. But that is not the test. This SDT considered this case very carefully indeed and, in my judgment, came overall to a sensible and reasonable conclusion.”