The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) will not appeal the High Court decision in the Ryan Beckwith case, stressing that the ruling was confined to its facts.
The case has fuelled the debate about the extent to which regulators should take action over activities in a lawyer’s personal life.
Last month, the High Court overturned the decision that Mr Beckwith, a former Freshfields partner, breached the SRA code of conduct by having drunken sex with a junior lawyer at the firm.
Though his conduct was “inappropriate”, the court identified as crucial the fact the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) did not find the solicitor’s conduct to be an abuse of a position of seniority or authority.
As a result, Dame Victoria Sharp, president of the Queen’s Bench Division, and Mr Justice Swift ruled that he did not act contrary to the SRA principles that required him to act with integrity (principle 2) and behaving in a way that maintained the trust the public placed in him and in the provision of legal services (principle 6).
In a statement issued today, SRA chair Anna Bradley took what she admitted was “the unusual step” of commenting on the case given the debate it has generated.
“We have decided not to appeal the judgment. This follows careful consideration of the judgment, as well as advice from leading counsel on the grounds for doing so.
“Nonetheless, we consider that the judgment raises important matters for public debate and scrutiny, rather than simply matters of law.”
Ms Bradley noted that the case was “properly brought” – and certified by the tribunal – on evidence gathered in response to a “serious” complaint.
She went on: “We welcome the court’s firm confirmation that our principles of acting with integrity and upholding public confidence comply with human rights standards by providing the necessary degree of legal certainty, and that ‘common sense dictates’ that those principles are entitled to reach into a solicitor’s personal life.
“We also welcome the clarity of the court’s confirmation that the public is entitled to expect that junior staff and members of the profession are treated with respect by more senior colleagues. Solicitors must not, as the court emphasised, ‘take unfair advantage of others’, whether in a professional or personal capacity.”
Ms Bradley stressed that the court expressly limited itself to the circumstances of the case.
“Our case did not depend on the issue of consent. Rather, we argued that the circumstances indicated vulnerability and abuse of a position of seniority and authority.
“Those and some other key facts were not found proved by the tribunal. The court’s judgment was based on and limited to the application of our principles to the findings of fact made by the tribunal in this case.”
She pointed out that the events in question took place prior to the introduction of the SRA’s Standards and Regulations in November 2019.
“We do not expect to win all the cases that we prosecute and we always reflect on important cases. In this instance, we are carefully considering whether this case highlights whether we need to do more to improve our ability to take appropriate action in the future.
“Finally, I want to emphasise that allegations of sexual misconduct and sexual harassment are matters that we take very seriously and will continue to act upon.”