The Solicitors Regulation Authority has confirmed that it will not contest the penalty of a £35,000 fine on a former Freshfields partner following a high profile hearing of allegations involving sexual misconduct.
Ryan Beckwith was found in breach of his obligations as a solicitor after he went back to the home of a junior colleague following post-work drinks in 2016. The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal judgment, published this month four months after the hearing, found Beckwith had caused harm to the profession but posed no future risk to the public.
The SRA had been expected to scrutinise the tribunal’s ruling after describing itself as ‘surprised’ by the decision to fine Beckwith. The regulator had 21 days from publication of the ruling to appeal, but revealed today it would accept the tribunal’s punishment. This allows Beckwith to continue his career.
An SRA spokesperson said: 'Solicitors hold positions of trust and must uphold the high professional standards we and the public expect. We are committed to tackling the issue of sexual harassment, including taking disciplinary action and ensuring law firms meet their obligations to create a culture where this is not tolerated.
‘We refer allegations of serious misconduct to the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal and it is they who reach findings and decide on sanctions. We are able to appeal their decisions if specific legal grounds are met. Following a review of the judgement in this case and having taken legal advice, we have decided not to appeal.’
The tribunal had found Beckwith’s conduct was ‘spontaneous’ but as a respected partner in the firm he had responsibility for junior colleagues and owed them a duty of care.
Ultimately his misconduct was caused by a ‘lapse in his judgment that was highly unlikely to be repeated’.
The tribunal added that Beckwith, who resigned from Freshfields after the tribunal’s decision, had attended courses recommended by his former employer. No clients were involved and there was no suggestion that his work had been anything other than highly competent.
Beckwith was ordered to pay £200,000 in costs following the hearing last October.
The decision not to press for a suspension or strike-off comes at a delicate time for the regulator, which has been under pressure to do more about allegations of sexual misconduct.
In October 2018, SRA chief executive Paul Philip told the House of Commons women and equalities committee that the regulator had established a dedicated in-house team to handle such complaints. After the Beckwith case concluded, Philip suggested similar cases were in the pipeline. He noted that ‘given the changes in societal expectations we will see more [action] in the coming years.’
But the SRA is also aware it will be criticised for seeming to be interfering in what some believe to be private matters.