Male solicitor suspended for groping and sexting colleague

SDT: Suspension a proportionate sanction

A male solicitor who groped a junior female colleague on two occasions and accepted a police caution for sending her an obscene text message has been suspended for 18 months.

The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) accepted that Gerard John Scott became “disinhibited by taking excessive alcohol whilst also being on medication”.

He admitted his misconduct – even though he said he could not remember it – because he said he did not want to cause ‘Person A’ further distress.

But she told the tribunal how deeply the incidents had affected her. “I struggled with anxiety attacks and was prescribed diazepam and a beta blocker by my GP. I was frightened to be at home in case [he] came to my house and I left and stayed with a friend.

“I stopped sleeping and I was unable to drive due to the effects of the medication I was taking. I had an anxiety attack when I was returning from court to the office one day and had to ask for permission to work from another office until I could calm myself down.

“I am normally a confident, outgoing and chatty person and my personality changed completely and I was nothing like my usual self.”

Mr Scott, a criminal law specialist, qualified at north-east firm Ben Hoare Bell in 2012 and worked there until late 2017, when he resigned over the incidents, which took place in March and November 2017.

The first was during a Friday night out two days after Person A’s qualification as a solicitor, when eight members of staff visited various pubs, finishing in Newcastle.

Mr Scott said he became “extraordinarily drunk”, consuming 10-12 pints plus wine. Person A said that, during the evening, he touched her inappropriately several times, including twice putting his hand inside her underwear.

After they had gone home, Person A received a text message from Mr Scott stating: “I would like to fuck you.”

She did not respond but “worried all weekend” about seeing him at work on Monday. Person A said she was “really humiliated and upset” but ultimately decided not to report his behaviour to the firm.

This was “for numerous reasons but mostly I was worried that I would find it uncomfortable to work with [Mr Scott] afterwards and I was worried that I would then have to leave my job”.

Person A alleged that Mr Scott apologised for his behaviour on the Monday and said that in the following weeks he was “very polite to me and we often worked together”.

But she recorded that there were further evenings out with colleagues where Mr Scott “did things which made me uncomfortable, for example hugging me when he said goodbye, but this was not in the same nature as the incidents on 17 March and I ignored my discomfort on these occasions and put this down to [him] being tactile in drink”.

She said he also did things which made her uncomfortable at work, and claimed that, over time, their working relationship deteriorated: “I often felt that he would boss me around and make comments to undermine me at work.”

The second occasion was another crime department drinks evening attended by the pair and three colleagues.

Person A said Mr Scott was drunk and, during a conversation about a colleague missing his recent wedding, he “grasped my hand from across the table and made a comment along the lines of ‘you’ll be at my next wedding’”.

He kept leaning across the table at her and touched her knee. Eventually he left and a colleague was concerned about whether he had got home safely, but could not ask him as his phone had been turned off.

Person A texted Mr Scott to ask if he was home. He replied two hours later, stating: “Yes why? Want to fuck you why. I want to fuck you.”

This time she told the firm what had happened. He told his employers that he had had a heavy workload which had affected his health, and that his alcohol problems had got out of control.

He expressed his remorse and shame, and said he preferred to resign than be fired.

Person A also reported the incidents to the police due to her fear that Mr Scott “might come to my house”.

The police administered a simple caution for a malicious communications offence – it said that “whilst drunk [he] has sent an inappropriate text causing her to feel upset and offended” – and took no further action in respect of her complaint of sexual assault.

In mitigation, Mr Scott talked about his heavy workload and a medical condition, along with the medication he had been taking at the time of both incidents.

He said stress had not led to his conduct but it had led to him drinking too much and that had caused him to behave as he had done. He had no memory of the events, or of apologising after the first one, but accepted Person A’s recollection.

The SDT noted: “He stated he had not been aware of the side effects of drinking alcohol while taking the medication he had been prescribed.”

He told the tribunal “that he was deeply and desperately sorry for his conduct and hoped Person A knew that his behaviour was not a reflection of any disregard for her”.

Mr Scott said he had totally abstained from drinking alcohol since November 2017 and had undergone counselling.

He was no longer practising as a solicitor and stated that he had no intention of returning to the profession. “He considered that he had not dealt appropriately with the stress of the job and he needed a period away…

“[He] accepted he had not sought treatment in March 2017 and said that there had been a degree of self-deception and cowardice as he had not wanted to acknowledge he had a problem.”

Deciding on sanction, the SDT said it found Mr Scott to be “a genuine and credible witness. He was contrite, remorseful, candid and apologetic for his behaviour”.

But it observed that “many solicitors operated under very stressful circumstances or under medication and did not behave in the way [he] had”. Further, as a criminal law solicitor who had dealt with cases involving sexual offences, he understood the impact of such behaviour on victims.

In his favour was self-reporting himself to the Solicitors Regulation Authority immediately after receiving the police caution, good character references and taking steps to ensure the conduct would not be repeated.

“He had attempted to rebuild his life by continuing with treatment at his own cost. He had resigned immediately and had made early admissions to save further embarrassment and distress to Person A.”

It concluded that Mr Scott’s “self-awareness and the measures he had already taken mitigated the risk of repetition”, with medical reports confirming that he had responded well to treatment.

“A period of 18 months would be sufficient to allow [him] time to complete his treatment whilst also ensuring the public and the reputation of the profession were both protected.

“This was a proportionate sanction which took into account the mitigation, the medical issues involved and balanced this with the public interest. It would also act to serve as a deterrent to other members of the profession.”

The tribunal reduced the SRA’s costs from £23,000 to £7,800.

The decision comes as the SDT is hearing the case against a partner at magic circle firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer over his sexual conduct in relation to a more junior female member of staff. The hearing is being widely reported in the media every day.

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