A male former partner with a central London firm repeatedly groped a female colleague and joked with her in the office about having joined the Ku Klux Klan, a tribunal has heard.
The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal also heard that Samuel Maurice Charkham, a solicitor for 43 years, and who is white, used a racist word in front of the black colleague and others at a Christmas party in 2016.
Charkham, who was at Simkins LLP at the time of the alleged misconduct, denies all charges.
The tribunal, sitting remotely, heard evidence from a complainant referred to as Person A. She described having been touched on the bottom on at least 18 occasions during four years at the firm, sometimes with Charkham using both hands. This conduct was said to have occurred once when person A was helping to staff an event organised by the firm and on another occasion when she was making a cup of tea in the office.
Person A said she had attended the Christmas dinner as she believed it was a ‘safe environment’ but she nevertheless positioned herself ‘as far away as possible from [Charkham]’ at the table. She said that he made a joke that had racist connotations as everybody suddenly turned and stared at her and there were gasps from those present.
On another occasion, person A said she was waiting to type a letter when she heard Charkham shouting her name down the hallway. He then came running through the office with an A4 piece of paper fashioned into a hat saying he had joined the Ku Klux Klan and laughing. ‘I was shocked that this was happening,’ she told the tribunal. ‘I said to my boss "can you please dictate the letter quickly" so I could go outside and get myself together.’
Nimi Bruce, representing the Solicitors Regulation Authority, said Charkham must have known that a joke claiming to be a member of the KKK would be offensive to person A and indeed anyone listening to him.
He must also have known the word he used over dinner in December 2016 was offensive.
Bruce said: ‘We do not accept for one moment these were jokes. The description of the respondent’s conduct as banter is a grotesque misnomer and should be rejected in the strongest possible terms.’
The tribunal also heard person A report that Charkham had ‘fits of rage’ with shouting and screaming in the office.
The tribunal heard that person A signed a non-disclosure agreement towards the end of 2017 and Charkham’s representative Jonathan Goodwin asked her why she did not report any of the misconduct incidents before agreeing to this. Goodwin added: ‘My client is accused of very serious misconduct which he says did not happen… what is being alleged is simply not true.’ He pointed out that person A had no recollection of the specific dates and times of any of the alleged sexual misconduct, and that no-one from the firm supported or had witnessed what she was saying.
Person A said ‘everyone was scared’ of Charkham and she did not want anyone to think she was causing trouble.
Bruce told the tribunal: ‘In cases of this nature complainants may experience a wide variety of emotions from sorrow, through guilt, through anger, and there is no character response that should be expected or anticipated in cases involving sexual misconduct.’
The hearing continues.