A former magic circle partner who was fined £35,000 last year after being accused of sexual misconduct has won his appeal and overturned a £200,000 costs order described by the court as 'alarming'.
Ryan Beckwith – who resigned from Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer last October – was found to have breached SRA principles 2 and 6 after spending the night with a junior colleague in 2016.
However in Beckwith v Solicitors Regulation Authority, the High Court today overturned the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal’s decision.
The High Court said the tribunal had been wrong to find that Beckwith had failed to act with integrity, thus breaching Principle 2.
It stated that the requirement to act with integrity obliged Beckwith not to act so as to take unfair advantage of ‘Person A’ by reason of his professional status. ‘On the findings made by the tribunal, that had not happened. The tribunal's final statement that the appellant had "fallen below accepted standards" is not coherent. Whatever "standards" the tribunal was referring to as ones which identified what, in the circumstances of this case, the obligation to act with integrity required, were not ones properly derived from the handbook.’
The SDT's conclusion that Beckwith undermined public trust was also ‘flawed, and cannot stand’, the High Court ruled.
While ‘seriously abusive conduct by one member of the profession against another, particularly by a more senior against a more junior member of the profession is clearly capable of damaging public trust in the provision of professional services… the facts as found and assessed by the tribunal are not capable of supporting the conclusion that the appellant acted in breach of Principle 6.'
Beckwith's actions affected his own reputation, the judgment stated, 'but there is a qualitative distinction between conduct of that order and conduct that affects either his own reputation as a provider of legal services or the reputation of his profession.’
In his appeal, Beckwith also argued that the SDT’s findings had breached his right to respect for private life guaranteed by article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
The High Court said there can be no ‘hard and fast rule’ either that regulation may never be directed to a person's private life, or that any/every aspect of her private life is liable to scrutiny.
However, it warned that ‘regulators will do well to recognise that it is all too easy to be dogmatic without knowing it; popular outcry is not proof that a particular set of events gives rise to any matter falling within a regulator's remit’.
The High Court said the costs claimed by the SRA in respect of the proceedings before the SDT were ‘alarming’.
‘We can see no basis on which the amount claimed by the SRA could provide any guide at all to what it would have been reasonable and proportionate for the appellant to pay, even if the SRA had succeeded on its case in its entirety. Taking matters in the round, the tribunal's reasons for the costs order made… are not coherent.’
A statement issued on behalf of Beckwith by Brett Wilson Solicitors said: 'Mr Beckwith is pleased that the High Court has reversed the limited findings against him made by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal.'
A spokesperson for the Solicitors Regulation Authority said: 'We will look at the High Court’s judgment carefully before considering any next steps.'
Alisdair Williamson QC, instructed by Brett Wilson LLP, appeared for the appellant; Riel Karmy-Jones QC and Rupert Allen, instructed by Capsticks Solicitors, for the respondent.
This article is now closed for comment.