SDT clears City lawyer in Zoom “espionage” case

Zoom: Solicitor was listening in to meeting, not attending

A senior City lawyer accused by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) of misconduct which the public would view as “shocking” and “perhaps even tantamount to espionage” has been cleared by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT).

However, the tribunal dismissed an application by Ronald George Paterson, now a consultant at Eversheds Sutherland who advises the fund management industry, for £101,700 in costs and instead made no order.

Mr Paterson, who qualified in 1982, had been a director of the firm since its founding in 2003.

He was accused by the SRA of “secretly listening in” to a meeting held over Zoom, from which he had “specifically been excluded”, and taking advantage of the company involved and misleading it.

The SRA said that one of Mr Paterson’s clients was Mr Davidson, chair, director and shareholder of an Isle of Man company called Stratospheric Platforms.

In May 2020, the company held a board meeting via Zoom to consider removing Mr Davidson as chair. Mr Davidson asked the solicitor to attend it and sent him an invitation.

On the morning of the meeting, the company’s CEO emailed Mr Paterson to say that the board had not authorised his attendance and asking him not to attempt to join.

After Mr Davidson said he should be allowed the same right of access to legal advice as the other board members, the meeting began with a discussion as to whether Mr Paterson should attend but resolved that he should not.

The board was not aware that he was already listening because the solicitor called Mr Davidson when the meeting started and followed it on the phone – because Mr Davidson used a company phone, it had a record of the calls.

The solicitor’s conduct was reported first by City firm Travers Smith, acting for the company, and then Eversheds Sutherland.

Counsel for the SRA told the SDT: “It was not conduct which a solicitor should encourage, let alone undertake. The general public would find such conduct from a solicitor shocking – perhaps even tantamount to espionage.”

Mr Paterson denied the allegations, drawing “a distinction between participating in the meeting and remaining on the phone to advise Mr Davidson while Mr Davidson participated in the meeting”.

The SDT did not find that Mr Paterson had been “in attendance”. It explained: “He was not listed as an attendee in the draft minutes, and had been unable to participate in the meetings. He had no means of communicating with anyone present at the meetings other than his own client.

“He could not see who was present on the Zoom call, nor who was speaking at any particular time. He could not intervene and make representations on behalf of his client, as he had intended to do, had his client’s request that he be allowed to attend been acceded to.

“The tribunal did not consider that the ability to hear what was being said at the meetings, amounted to attendance at them.”

Mr Paterson was “under no obligation to inform anyone that he was providing advice to his client”, who was entitled to receive that advice “in real time”.

There was “no evidence” that, by not revealing his presence, any of the participants were misled.

“The tribunal noted that whilst the concept of a solicitor listening to a meeting from which they knew they had been excluded might be uncomfortable, in the circumstances of this case, it did not amount to professional misconduct.

“Mr Paterson had listened to the meeting on his client’s instructions in order to provide him with the legal advice he had been retained to provide, and to which his client was entitled.”

On costs, the SDT ruled that it was not “improper or unreasonable” for the SRA to bring the case, and as a result made no order for costs.

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