SDT: No significant risk that groping ‘KKK’ solicitor will repeat conduct

SDT: Thoughtless behaviour

There is no “significant risk” that a senior partner who did a Ku Klux Klan impersonation at his Black secretary and repeatedly groped her bottom will repeat his behaviour, the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal has decided.

This was despite the fact that it rejected Samuel Charkham’s assertion that it was extremely hard to change his attitudes, which were “ossified” in his youth.

“Such attitudes were never acceptable and 10 years after the Equality Act 2010 they can have no place in the profession,” the SDT said.

The tribunal yesterday released the full reasons for its decision in October to fine Mr Charkham, who qualified in 1977, £30,000 and recommend that he undergo equality training.

At the time was a partner and head of conveyancing at London firm Simkins. The tribunal heard how he pulled a large white envelope over his head and ran down the corridor calling the secretary’s name and shouting “I’ve joined the KKK”.

Mr Charkham also told a racist joke in front of her at a Christmas work party: “What do you call a black man who sells ties? A tycoon.”

The tribunal further found that he touched the secretary’s bottom 18 times and flicked the firm’s accounts manager’s bottom.

It rejected his claim that he did not properly understand what the Klu Klux Klan represented, and said it was “troubled” by evidence of two colleagues called on Mr Charkham’s behalf that the secretary dressed and acted provocatively.

This was “irrelevant and an attempt to discredit” her, the SDT said.

“The tribunal rejected that evidence in its entirety. It was a topic which should never have been raised. Even if entirely accurate (and no finding of fact is made because it is irrelevant) it would be no excuse, or reason, to touch Person A’s bottom.”

The SDT described the secretary as a credible witness and preferred her evidence over Mr Charkham, who said there had been no touching.

Though his conduct was found to have had a racial and sexual motivation, “overall however the tribunal believed that the respondent’s behaviour had been thoughtless and resulted from an inability to appreciate the inappropriateness of his actions and that he had no regard for the effects of his actions on others”.

The ruling went on: “The tribunal did not consider that to vitiate, mitigate or excuse the behaviour. To the contrary, the tribunal determined that it demonstrably showed the respondent’s lack of respect, inability to conform to acceptable standards of behaviour and belief that he could conduct himself in any manner that he deemed fit.”

The SDT accepted that, “difficult though it was to understand how a professional person was not aware of the shift in public views about such matters during his working lifetime”, Mr Charkham had not “fully appreciated” the racial implications of his ‘joke’.

“It is an unfortunate aspect of society that some people still believe it is acceptable to make inappropriate and unacceptable comments when they are presented as ‘jokes’ or ‘pranks’. Such are often described as ‘banter’ which is frequently no more than an insult the speaker finds amusing.”

In relation to the bottom touching, it said it was “unfortunate” that the solicitor “did not perceive the total unacceptability of his actions, and that others, particularly Person A, would see them as predatory”.

The tribunal was “particularly concerned” at the power imbalance between a partner and a secretary.

Similarly, the conduct in relation to the accounts manager “demonstrably showed his inherent disregard to the impact of his behaviour on others. His attitudinal shortcomings were ingrained”.

The SDT said Mr Charkham showed “no particular insight”. He maintained he had displayed “a playful sense of humour” and merely told “old-fashioned” jokes.

The ruling said: “The tribunal understood that was his view of his own conduct but it was simply not an acceptable excuse or explanation. Whilst he apologised for the bad taste of those ‘jokes’, it was clear to the tribunal that he had no real understanding that such an attitude is anathema to the core values of the profession.”

Nonetheless, it concluded that Mr Charkham – who had a clean disciplinary history up to this point – did not pose a risk to the public, nor that there was significant risk to colleagues and others of any repeat of this behaviour.

“The tribunal was satisfied that these proceedings and findings were such that the respondent was unlikely to behave in the same manner moving forwards.”

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