Beckwith: SRA's credibility questioned following chair's statement
By Nicola Laver
Solicitors have accused the SRA of arrogance and questioned its credibility following its response to the Beckwith appeal.
In the Beckwith case, a former Freshfields partner was fined £35,000 by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) in January 2020, after being found to have acted without integrity and undermined public trust in solicitors while in a brief sexual relationship with a junior colleague.
The Divisional Court overturned the SDT’s ruling and the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), has put to bed speculation it may appeal.
In an unusual statement published by the SRA in response to the court ruling, and described by lawyers as lacking in humility, its chair Anna Bradley said the case was “properly brought”.
She said: “We consider that the judgment raises important matters for public debate and scrutiny, rather than simply matters of law.”
She acknowledged the highly sensitive nature of the issues but also “the relevance of this judgment not only to the individuals involved but also to others who have brought concerns to us and might do so in the future”.
Bradley said: “We welcome the court's firm confirmation that our Principles of acting with integrity and upholding public confidence comply with human rights standards by providing the necessary degree of legal certainty, and that ‘common sense dictates’ that those principles are entitled to reach into a solicitor's personal life.
“We also welcome the clarity of the court's confirmation that the public is entitled to expect that junior staff and members of the profession are treated with respect by more senior colleagues.”
She pointed out that solicitors must not, as the court emphasised, "take unfair advantage of others", whether in a professional or personal capacity.
“In overturning the Tribunal's decision”, Bradley added, “the court expressly limited itself to the circumstances of this case.
“Our case did not depend on the issue of consent. Rather, we argued that the circumstances indicated vulnerability and abuse of a position of seniority and authority.
“Those and some other key facts were not found proved by the Tribunal.
“The court's judgment was based on and limited to the application of our Principles to the findings of fact made by the Tribunal in this case.”
She said the SRA was “carefully considering whether this case highlights whether we need to do more to improve our ability to take appropriate action in the future”, but she stopped short of recognising the court’s decision.
Bradley stressed that the SRA would continue to take allegations of sexual misconduct and sexual harassment “very seriously”.
Emma Walker (pictured), a regulatory solicitor at Leigh Day who specialises in solicitors’ discipline, called into question the credibility of the SRA.
She said: “Although there were initially some real questions of concern around consent in this case, once those fell away the question of the reach of the regulator into people’s private lives crystallised.
“It is incumbent on the SRA to reflect on where it focuses its attention and clearly explain the rationale behind its approach.”
She said without that transparency, there is a real credibility issue for the regulator.
Walker commented: “The SRA must ensure it doesn’t spread itself too thin and recognise that those it regulates are not required to be paragons of virtue.
“Precisely because individuals are at the heart of every matter the SRA looks at, there must be an onus on the SRA to investigate and put forward cases properly.”
She said when the SRA chair comments that “the SRA is carefully considering whether this case highlights that it needs to do more to improve its ability to take appropriate action in the future, it must publish candid conclusions from those deliberations”.
“Failure to do so leaves a threat hanging over the profession in a way that is neither healthy nor helpful”, said Walker, “and commentary from the regulator should only ever be welcomed, providing it is informed and balanced.”
Susanna Heley, a partner at RadcliffesLeBrasseur¸ was unsurprised by the SRA’s decision but said she was disappointed that the regulator seemed to be “trying to limit the remit of the Beckwith decision”.
She commented: “I don’t see how they can properly argue that the decision is limited to its very specific facts when the High Court was very clearly giving a much more widely applicable opinion as to the jurisdiction of the SRA in general and the interaction between Article 8 protections and regulatory jurisdictions in particular.”
“The principle that there must be some relevance to professional life is plainly intended to be of general application”, she added.