A “patronising” solicitor who made multiple “racially, ethnically or religiously motivated comments” to young women at an event held at the Royal Courts of Justice – whom he later accused of being ‘woke’ – has been struck off.
In addition, he failed to comply with court orders to pay costs to two clients he had unsuccessfully sued for fees and did not co-operate with the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s (SRA) investigation, dishonestly misleading it at one point.
Victor Stockinger is now appealing the ruling of the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) to the High Court.
Qualified in 1990, he was a recognised sole practitioner at Stockinger, a firm in the City of London, and a member of the committee of the Solicitors Association of Higher Court Advocates (SAHCA).
In June 2019, the association hosted the Lord Slynn Memorial Lecture at the Royal Courts of Justice and at the reception afterwards Mr Stockinger spoke to a female Muslim legal executive of Afghani origin whom he had never met before.
He said words that to the effect that she was wasting her time working in the field of human rights in the UK when she could return to Afghanistan and educate the Taliban on terrorism.
Mr Stockinger then spoke to a junior female solicitor he did not know and said that she must have Irish or Celtic heritage because of her red hair. She replied that actually she was Jewish.
In response, she reported, he used words to the effect of “so you think you’re Jewish?” The woman responded, “I don’t think I am Jewish – I am Jewish”, to which he asked her if she was “playing the religion or race card”.
In a subsequent conversation with the solicitor and the procurement director of a company (‘Person C’), he was found to have used words to the effect that the definition of a successful woman was one who could afford to spend anything she liked and the definition of a successful man was one who could afford such a woman.
The women told him that the comments were offensive, to which he responded by suggesting that their male partners must fund their lifestyles.
Mr Stockinger then asked Person C which languages she spoke, which she felt he did as one of “a handful of non-Caucasian attendees”.
She said she spoke English, French, Gujarati and some Hindi, but Mr Stockinger disagreed that she spoke those languages in that order, saying her French must not be very good.
“Person C explained that she spoke the languages as listed and that her father’s family were originally from Zaire (a former Belgian colony) and that she spoke French at home.
“Person C also described the respondent as saying words to the effect that Africans were never any good at business, nor will they be, that they (Africans) could never get it right and how Indians and Europeans made the Belgian Congolese civil.”
Five people complained to SAHCA about Mr Stockinger’s behaviour at the event.
He argued that he did not use some of the specific words alleged and that each of the comments had been taken out of context.
Within context, he said, they were innocuous and/or inoffensive and justified as “a valid and reasonable opinion”, but the complainants had “improperly applied a ‘woke’ perception” to them.
In each case, however, the SDT preferred the accounts of the complainants, finding no reason for them to lie.
It rejected Mr Stockinger’s suggestion that the tribunal did not have jurisdiction over the comments as they were made in private and outside his practice as a solicitor.
The tribunal noted that he attended the event in his capacity as a solicitor and, in any case, the ethical standards of the profession “unambiguously extended to acting with respect for diversity, whether within practice or a solicitor’s conduct outside practice”.
Mr Stockinger argued too that the complaints were made in bad faith at the instigation of another SAHCA member who had “long-standing personal issues” with him – a contention the SDT found to be “far-fetched and unconvincing”.
It said: “Such a plan would be reliant on the respondent duly obliging with conversational material about which complaints could be made.”
The tribunal continued: “[He] spoke with assurance on a wide range of topics, and in his evidence and his questioning of those who had made complaints about him, the tribunal considered that he displayed an assertiveness, dismissiveness and belligerence which was consistent with the descriptions applied to his comments.”
The comments upset “the young and ethnically and religiously diverse women with whom he spoke at the event, after which he sought to belittle their objections and to characterise them as examples of ‘wokeism’, made in bad faith, at the behest of another member of the SAHCA committee.”
The tribunal rejected these submissions as “self-serving rationalisations”.
It concluded that his conduct was “at best belittling, insensitive and patronising”.
The SDT went on: “Focusing as it did on the race, ethnicity and/or religion of those to whom his variously dismissive, rude and/or aggressive comments were directed, the tribunal accepted that the respondent’s conduct could be said to be ‘motivated’ by these factors as alleged.
“The tribunal decided that it was so motivated, and accordingly found proved to the requisite standard that the respondent’s conduct… was racially and/or ethnically and/or religiously motivated.”
Mr Stockinger failed to comply with the costs order made in February 2017 and January 2019 until last year, and even then did not pay the interest due.
The tribunal accepted that he had a “deeply held conviction” that the clients had taken advantage of him but that did not justify failing to comply with court orders.
His argument that the money represented by the orders was an asset of the clients over which he exercised a lien was “inventive”, but the tribunal said a lien did not have any place when the ‘asset’ in question was money owed under a court order.
Mr Stockinger was also found not to have co-operated with the SRA investigation, providing delayed, incomplete and – in one instance – inaccurate information. This was when he said he had appealed one of the orders and sought a stay when in fact he had not.
This was dishonest, the SDT said, although it acknowledged that the impact of the statement was “undermined to some extent by the fact that he also stated in the same letter that he had not applied for a stay and had also indicated that he did not have the documents to hand”.
Overall, the SDT said, he had been trying “to buy time and to avoid difficult regulatory scrutiny”.
Though the single dishonesty finding in itself may not have required a strike-off, the SDT said, it had made multiple other findings that Mr Stockinger’s conduct had “lacked integrity and had failed to meet the minimum ethical standards required from solicitors”.
He had enjoyed “a long and previously unblemished career”, but the tribunal concluded that “cumulatively the conduct found proved was of the highest level of seriousness and that the protection of the reputation of the legal profession required that the appropriate sanction was strike off”.
Mr Stockinger was also ordered to pay costs of £42,000.