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When does a consensual ‘sexual encounter’ amount to professional misconduct?

Makbool Javaid, Partner - Simons Muirhead & Burton

In Beckwith v Solicitors Regulation Authority [2020] EWHC 3231 (Admin), the High Court reversed the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal’s determination that a solicitor who had a consensual ‘sexual encounter’ with a junior colleague breached the SRA’s Code of Conduct.

In 2016, Mr Beckwith was a partner at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer. Colleague A was an associate in his department. The ‘sexual encounter’ came after an evening of drinking with colleagues at a bar near Freshfields’ London office. Large amounts of alcohol were consumed. By midnight, Mr Beckwith and Colleague A were the only two still at the bar. They left in a taxi together and ultimately had a ‘sexual encounter’ in Colleague A’s bedroom.

The Tribunal found that Colleague A had not explicitly invited Mr Beckwith into her home – she had given him permission to come in to use the toilet only. However, there was no suggestion that the ‘sexual encounter’ had been non-consensual.

Mr Beckwith did not challenge the SDT’s factual findings. His appeal was on the grounds that the SDT was wrong to find that his conduct had breached principles 2 and 6 of the SRA Code of Conduct. The High Court agreed with Mr Beckwith. The requirement to act with integrity had to be read in the context of the other requirements of the Code – it is not a freestanding requirement.

The High Court’s judgment provides welcome clarity as to the correct approach to allegations arising in a professional’s private life. The High Court put a lot of weight on the Tribunal’s finding that Mr Beckwith had not abused his seniority in relation to Colleague A.

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