“Shocking and abhorrent” conduct – SDT explains Bretherton strike-off

Bretherton: SDT finds he did not have insight into misconduct

The conduct of the City solicitor struck off for taking sexual advantage of an 18-year-old apprentice was “shocking and abhorrent”, the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) has said.

The tribunal finally published its written ruling on Friday, having struck off Oliver Bretherton in June, a month after upholding 70 allegations against him in relation to three young women who worked at Gowling WLG.

It is said to be the first time a solicitor has been struck off for sexual misconduct falling short of a criminal offence.

The actions of Mr Bretherton against Person A, a legal apprentice who in September 2017 joined the same real estate finance team where he was a legal director, after he had helped recruit her, were found to be sexually motivated and an abuse of his position.

We detailed some of the explicit allegations found against him in the earlier story.

In relation to Person B, a 23-year-old trainee he supervised for six months from March 2017, and Person C, a 19-year-old legal apprentice, he was found to have abused his position but not to have been sexually motivated.

He was “controlling and unreasonable” with Person B and “inappropriate, laddish and childish” with Person C, whose allegations concerned a single interaction with Mr Bretherton at a firm party.

The SDT determined that Person A was “a credible, compelling and largely consistent witness” and the “extraordinary” conduct Mr Bretherton had admitted largely supported her evidence.

“The tribunal considered his attempts to apportion blame onto Person A for instigating his misconduct and his categorisation of their interactions as a ‘consensual fantasy sexual relationship’ as deeply unattractive.

“It was a disingenuous attempt to minimise his misconduct in a strategic and guarded, as opposed to candid, manner.”

Whilst the tribunal accepted that Person A “wanted to be noticed” within the firm, Mr Bretherton “took advantage of her age, naivete and the fact that it was her first job after leaving school”.

Person B was “a composed, articulate, clear, fair and credible witness”. The SDT found that Mr Bretherton’s approach to his friendship with her was “unhealthy, obsessive and distorted”.

But it continued: “Those findings did not necessarily equate to sexual motivation. In circumstances where Person B did not consider his conduct to have been sexually motivated and cognisant of the fact that there were two instances in which Mr Bretherton commented on her appearance, the tribunal found the allegation of sexual motivation not proved on a balance of probabilities.”

Mr Bretherton was found to have put ice cubes down the back of Person C’s dress and say “You tell me where this is going, your cleavage or elsewhere”. The SDT did not accept that these events were “sexualised or amounted to demonstrable sexual motivation on the part of Mr Bretherton”.

At the same time, it noted that Mr Bretherton had “failed to take heed of the previous warnings he had been given as regards his inappropriate comments to Person A and B”.

In deciding sanction, the tribunal said: “He was in a position of authority and there existed a demonstrable theme of misogyny directed at young women.”

Mitigation that cited his involvement on Gowling’s thrive committee –which dealt with gender inequality in the workplace – and flexible approach to working given his paternal responsibilities “was advanced in an attempt to camouflage and detract from his nefarious misconduct”.

The SDT cited the “significant and profound harm” he had caused to Person A. In her evidence, she said: “I was scared that if once I started telling my story or if I ever told anyone about what Mr Bretherton made me do then I would lose my career… I haven’t been able to make as much progression over the last six years… because of what’s happened to me.”

The “significant harm” caused to Person B was such that Gowling had to measures in place to curtail Mr Bretherton’s interaction with her.

On the basis of her “frank evidence”, there had been “minimal harm” caused to Person C.

There was also “grave” damage to the profession’s reputation, noting Person A’s evidence that she “thought that was how women [were] treated in the profession”.

The SDT did not accept the suggestion by Mr Bretherton’s counsel that he had shown insight into his misconduct.

“The admissions he made were minimal and qualified in circumstances where he either (a) sought to deflect blame onto another or (b) was faced with contemporaneous documentary and oral evidence.”

The seriousness of the misconduct meant a fine was not appropriate; nor were restrictions on his practice given that his actions “transcended profession practice and personal life”.

Counsel had suggested a short suspension but the SDT concluded that, given its duty to protect the public from harm, declare and uphold proper standards within the profession, and maintain public confidence, “suspension for any period of time failed to accurately reflect the grave departure from the standards expected of solicitors”.

“The tribunal therefore determined that an order striking Mr Bretherton off the roll of solicitors was the appropriate and proportionate sanction.”

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