The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal case involving Baker McKenzie should be postponed until autumn at the earliest, one of the parties argued today, claiming it would be unfair to hear the evidence of the final respondent via video link.
In a case management hearing conducted on Zoom, Jonathan Laidlaw QC – for Baker McKenzie’s former head of HR Martin Blackburn – said securing fair proceedings for his client should be the tribunal’s ‘overriding consideration’, and that hearing the remainder of the case remotely would impose an ‘inequality of position’ between the four respondents.
Laidlaw said the three other respondents – the firm itself, former London managing partner Gary Senior and former partner Thomas Cassels – ‘had the benefit of answering questions in person in a court room’ where the tribunal could ‘assess their demeanour, which wouldn’t be possible if Mr Blackburn gives evidence by video link’.
‘It is impossible in this sort of set-up to give evidence in a way that gives justice to your case…We ignore that at our peril,’ Laidlaw said. He added that those involved in the proceedings could contract coronavirus before or during the the hearing if it takes place in April and May as planned.
The three other respondents opposed Blackburn’s stance. For the Solicitors Regulation Authority, Andrew Tabachnik QC, said there was no material disadvantage to giving evidence by video. ‘There is no really compelling reason why the dates we have allocated to these proceedings shouldn’t be used,’ he said, claiming that giving evidence by video link is ‘different but it is hard to say it is detrimental at all’. He added that, if postponed, the case might not resume until 2021.
Ricard Coleman QC, for Thomas Cassels, added: ‘One cannot be put off one’s stride by the sadly realistic possibility that one of us will get ill in the meantime.’
The case was adjourned in December because of Blackburn’s health, and is currently due to re-start on 27 April. Gregory Treverton-Jones, barrister for Senior, said Blackburn should not ‘derail proceedings for a second time’.
Update 14.45: The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal decided this afternoon to maintain the dates and to proceed on a remote basis, keeping the position under review to ensure it continues to be fair to all parties. The hearing, which was adjourned in December, will resume on 27 April. It is expected to conclude in early June.
A spokesperson for Baker McKenzie said: ‘We welcome today’s decision to proceed as planned with the timetable for the SDT hearing, despite the current situation regarding coronavirus. We believe that it is in the interests of all parties that the matter is concluded as swiftly as possible.’