A solicitor has been struck off for sexually assaulting the wife of a “long-term friend” as she slept, after drinking downstairs with her husband who fell asleep.
The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) said that, after penetrating the woman with his finger, sole practitioner Ashley Attwood took photographs of her, which he later destroyed but which were recovered from his phone by police.
Mr Attwood, principal of personal injury firm Attwoods Solicitors in Stoke-on-Trent, was jailed in April 2021 for five years and put on the Sex Offenders Register indefinitely.
The SDT said: “A solicitor acting with integrity would not have committed such a heinous crime.
“The nature of the offence caused significant harm to Person A who was particularly vulnerable having been asleep in her own home at the time the offence was committed. She had suffered immeasurable distress.”
The tribunal also said the public would not expect a solicitor “deliberately to impede or prevent, or to attempt to impede or prevent, the judicial process by deleting evidence, namely the 11 images of Person A he recorded on his mobile phone, which were highly relevant” to the criminal investigation.
“As the judge remarked, this was an ‘obvious attempt to destroy evidence’.”
The SDT heard that Mr Attwood, aged 52, was admitted in 1998 and was in sole practice from January 2005. His law firm closed in February 2020, when it was bought by another firm.
He stayed the night at his friend’s house in August 2018, “as he had in the past, to save him driving back to his home”.
The SDT went on: “Person A went to bed soon after returning home and fell asleep. Mr Attwood stayed up drinking with Person A’s husband. Person A was woken by Mr Attwood touching her sometime after 3am.”
His Honour Judge Glenn, at Stoke-on-Trent Crown Court, said the first time Person A was penetrated by Mr Attwood’s finger, she managed to get back to sleep again, but she was penetrated again more forcibly and the solicitor put his hand inside her bra and touched her breast.
Person A turned over to see Mr Attwood hastily exiting the bedroom.
The SDT said: “Person A told her husband what had happened and Mr Attwood was told to leave. Mr Attwood pretended to be asleep. His jeans and phone were found in another bedroom.”
The solicitor was arrested and interviewed by the police. He denied the offences and made no comment. Following his arrest his mobile phone was seized and forensically examined.
By the time he was interviewed again in 2019, the police had recovered images from his phone.
The trial judge said that at the time of his defence statement in July 2020, Mr Attwood “continued to lie”, admitting touching Person A and taking the photos but saying the touching was not sexual and there was no penetration.
However, a month before the trial, Mr Attwood pleaded guilty to the offence of assault by penetration under section 2 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003. He accepted full responsibility but “claimed he could not recall the details”.
The trial judge considered that the solicitor’s delay in accepting responsibility and acknowledging guilt had caused further distress to Person A.
His offence was aggravated by the fact it took place in Person A’s bedroom, she was penetrated not once but twice, the abuse of friendship, the effect on Person A and the fact that Mr Attwood was under the influence of alcohol.
Counsel for the solicitor said in mitigation before the SDT that he was “horrified” by the offence and did not deserve to call himself a solicitor any more.
He said he had been suffering from a number of undiagnosed medical conditions at the time – although “it was clear that HHJ Glenn placed limited weight on the content of the [medical] report”.
He was struck off and ordered to pay costs of £3,000.