A law firm partner who was alleged to have touched his female colleague’s bottom on a weekly basis has been cleared of misconduct by a tribunal.
The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal cleared Richard Daniel Smith, from south England firm Steele Raymond, of misconduct following a three-day hearing last November.
It was alleged by the former colleague, referred to as Person A, that Smith committed up to 20 assaults against her. Smith denied misconduct.
The tribunal's judgment found it significant that Person A had doubts about one incident, and concluded she was ‘prone to exaggeration and embellishment which detrimentally impact on her credibility’. The majority was also ‘troubled’ by inconsistency in witness accounts and by the fact that Person A did not report the alleged touching to anyone in the firm. All allegations were found not proven beyond reasonable doubt.
Smith, a solicitor for 16 years, was alleged to have known his conduct was inappropriate and it was an abuse of his seniority. He was at the time a partner and member of the LLP, specialising in private client work.
It was alleged by Person A that Smith touched her while she was working on the floor, under his desk, to fix an IT issue. She claimed this was part of a ‘pattern of behaviour’ where Smith would touch her when they passed each other. It was further alleged he stood near her in a client meeting when there was no reason to do so and touched her again.
Smith’s lawyer put to her in cross examination that the allegations were untrue and that Smith would not have behaved in such a manner in an open plan office in plain sight of colleagues. He asked why she did not simply tell Smith to stop; she answered she did not know how to address the matter.
Smith told the tribunal that the allegations ‘absolutely didn’t happen and [were] absolute fabrications’, borne out of revenge over a disagreement over a parking space.
He confirmed he engaged in general ‘office banter’ regarding the squeezing or patting of bottoms but stated he was on the receiving end as well being an instigator.
As a result of the allegations he had lost partnership and significant salary, and he felt ‘harshly treated’. He had no reason to commit indecent assault as he was in a happy and fulfilled marriage, and the idea a young partner in a firm would take such a risk was ‘inexplicable as to be beyond belief’.
The tribunal hearing started with what were described as ‘heated’ submissions from lawyers for both parties. This had followed the SRA’s legal team going to meet in a private room before the hearing with Person A as part of a ‘familiarisation process’, and Smith’s lawyer knocking on the door to see whether she was being ‘coached’ in her evidence. The tribunal ruled that the SRA’s conduct did not ‘cross the line’ and dismissed an application for proceedings to be stayed as an abuse of process.
The tribunal also ruled that defence questioning about Person A’s previous sexual history was not improper, unfair or irrelevant.