Solicitors’ sex lives should remain their own business when the activity is consensual, a renowned authority on regulation has said following last Friday’s High Court judgment concerning former Freshfields partner Ryan Beckwith.
'Regulators should not require solicitors to be paragons of virtue in their private lives,' added Greg Treverton-Jones QC, long-time co-author of The Solicitor’s Handbook and a top advocate in solicitors’ disciplinary cases.
Beckwith (pictured) – who resigned from Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer last October – was found by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal to have breached SRA principles 2 and 6 after spending the night with a junior colleague in 2016. He was fined £35,000. The High Court overturned both the decision and a £200,000 costs order described by the court as ‘alarming’.
Treverton-Jones said the judgment is a ‘bad result’ for the SRA in a number of respects.
'The divisional court decision is to be welcomed,' he told the Gazette. 'It is not generally the job of a regulator to pry into the private lives of those it regulates. Once the SDT had found that the sexual encounter was consensual (it was not alleged to be otherwise), and involved no abuse of power by Mr. Beckwith, I was unable to understand upon what basis he was being disciplined, let alone how he could possibly have been guilty of any lack of integrity.'
He added: 'Regulators should not require solicitors to be paragons of virtue in their private lives: nor should regulators seek to hitch themselves to transient public bandwagons. I have always believed that solicitors’ sex lives should remain their own private business, save where the sexual activity is non-consensual, or amounts to harassment or an abuse of power.'
Writing for the Lawyer Watch blog, Steven Vaughan, professor of law and professional ethics at University College London, pointed to the uncertainty solicitors will feel over both what 'integrity' means, and where the line is to be drawn by regulators on their behaviour as private individuals. He suggested the SRA ought now to 'create some guidance about its own "vague"' professional principles and/or a statement of ethical standards’.
Vaughan said: 'It’s very clear that the High Court doesn’t like what it sees as professional regulators sticking their neck into the personal lives of lawyers. I mean, I don’t necessarily disagree… But this wasn’t a case about me being mean to my neighbours. It’s about a sexual encounter between a partner and an associate in his team following after work drinks. Where do we draw the line?'
The SRA has said it is considering the judgment, while the SDT has said it will not comment on the case.
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