A solicitor’s private life ‘cannot be completely disregarded’ in the sphere of professional misconduct, the president of the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal has said, asserting that tribunal panels ‘must act fearlessly in the public interest’.
In an introduction to the SDT’s latest annual report, Edward Nally said that sexual misconduct and offensive social media posts have recently ‘come under the microscope’, and there will ‘no doubt be many other areas where the delicate balance between personal and professional conduct arises’.
‘It is impossible for solicitors to leave their practising certificates at home completely and expect to act with total impunity in a personal capacity,' Nally wrote. 'It would be most odd if appalling behaviour in a personal capacity could completely be disregarded in terms of whether it also constitutes professional misconduct, or whether it calls into question the integrity of an individual.’
He added that the SDT must consider where the regulatory reach of the Solicitors Regulation Authority starts and ends, ‘and we must do that fearlessly in the public interest’.
The prosecution of senior solicitors suspected of sexual misconduct has come under close scrutiny in recent months. In November, a high profile ruling against former Freshfields partner Ryan Beckwith was overturned by the High Court.
Beckwith was found to have breached SRA principles 2 and 6 after spending the night with a junior colleague in 2016. But the Court of Appeal ruled that the SDT's conclusion that Beckwith undermined public trust was ‘flawed, and cannot stand’. It also warned that 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’.
According to the SDT’s annual report, 55 solicitors were struck off in 2020 – down from 67 in 2019 – following a drop in the number of hearings during lockdown. Meanwhile, the tribunal ordered £515,505 in fines, down from £719,253.
Meanwhile a study by employment law specialist Fox & Partners found that the number of sex discrimination and harassment complaints made to the SRA fell by a third year-on-year, from 56 in 2019 to 37 in 2020. The report attributed the decline to remote working.