• April 20, 2024
 SRA suspends solicitor after sexual misconduct at a work Christmas party after firm refuses to accept ‘too drunk’ excuse

SRA suspends solicitor after sexual misconduct at a work Christmas party after firm refuses to accept ‘too drunk’ excuse

The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) suspended a solicitor after he was accused of sexual misconduct against a female colleague at a work Christmas party in 2019.

Claiming that he was ‘extremely intoxicated’ the solicitor agreed that he had behaved inappropriately after he had touched the bottom and thigh of his colleague and made a lurid sexual remark toward her. The incident took place on 12  December 2019.

The female colleague, who was sat at a table with the accused and five others, told the SRA: 

“Around 11pm/midnight, he kept physically grabbing my backside and touched the front of my thigh. One of my
friends was trying to get someone to stand between them both. As I was leaving the party around 1-130pm he came up to me again and said, ‘I would really like to f*** you, would you like to f*** me?’”

A friend of the female admitted that she and one other had attempted to get between the accused and their colleague on the dancefloor after seeing that she had displayed signs of distress.

Of the incident the junior female employee said: 

“I was shocked by this. It was entirely inappropriate behaviour and it made me feel extremely uncomfortable at the possibility that I might see him again at work, even though I had not done anything wrong. His behaviour also made me feel very angry that somebody would feel it appropriate to ask such a thing.”

Despite prior warning from the firm’s director ahead of the Christmas party, stating that all employees must act on behalf of their employer and that alcohol consumption will not be ‘accepted as an excuse for unacceptable behaviour’, the accused stated that the behaviour toward his colleague was in fact caused by alcohol consumption.

In the Tribunal proceedings, the employee said that his behaviour was ‘entirely out of character and as a consequence of his extreme intoxication’. He accepted that by virtue of his conduct he had breached the Principles alleged and the Code of
Conduct as by which he was obliged to operate.

On 6 December 2019, the Managing Partner at the Firm sent an email to all employees as regards expected levels of behaviour at the Firm’s annual Christmas party.

She stated:

“If you choose to attend [the party]you remain an ambassador of the firm. What you do outside work is capable of affecting the firm’s reputation just as much as your own so, when attending social events the firm still expects  you to hold yourself up to the highest standards of behaviour and conduct. Our priority is to ensure that everyone who chooses to attend events like this
feels able to enjoy themselves and keep safe. In particular, we want to emphasise that excessive alcohol consumption will not be accepted as an excuse for unacceptable behaviour”

On 19 December 2019, the firm made a verbal report of the female’s complaint to the SRA. A solicitor and fixed share member of the firm returned to the Manchester hotel where the party took place to procure CCTV footage of the evening, which the hotel allowed him to watch, but refused to hand over a copy of for the tribunal. The solicitor could discern from the CCTV that the events in question did indeed take place.

Initially, the accused denied his conduct, until the CCTV footage was mentioned. In the footage, his female colleague can be seen stepping away from him repeatedly. The solicitor claimed that the female ‘started the conversation’ at the dinner table.

He said: 

“The office Christmas party was a lively affair, and it seems many of the staff were intoxicated. I was also very drunk, and have very little recollection of what took place after the meal. I recall an unusual conversation at the table when the female colleague pointed to various people on the dance floor and asked me whether I would ‘f***them?’ I recall this conversation was instigated by her. I do not remember anything afterwards on the dance floor.”

He then stated: 

“I had initially denied the allegations on the basis that I have no recollection of these incidents and because such behaviour would be completely out of character for me. I have since received the evidence provided to me by HR on 8 January 2020 and whilst I still have no recollection of these events and have not had sight of the CCTV footage referred to I accept that the evidence as it does appear to support the allegations against me.

“The evidence has come as a complete shock to me, and I wish to take this opportunity to offer my sincerest apologies to my former colleague for any upset caused by my actions. Upon reflection of the evidence, I am unable to explain what possessed me to behave in this manner. I appear to have drunk more alcohol than I intended and realised that night and I apologise in addition to the female and to the firm for this.”

An Order suspending the lawyer from practice for three months was imposed by the Tribunal.

On 6 January 2020, another firm employee who was present at the Christmas party stated that the ‘proposition was not serious’ provided a statement to the Firm in which she stated that:

“Towards the end of the party both herself and a friend were aware that with the female colleague being fairly junior we needed to keep an eye on her as she was getting a lot of male attention particularly on the dance floor. Before the party ended, She told me that the accused said he wanted to ‘f***’ her. I thought it was a throw-away remark and not a serious proposition on either of their behalf.”

Since 2020, the accused was employed at another firm. Since the tribunal, the solicitor submitted a
reflective statement dated 22 March 2021 in which he expressed his regret and shame. He referred efforts made on his part to ‘broaden his knowledge on the issues surrounding sexual harassment’ and having ‘sought to gain insight by attending training courses, watching online seminars and by speaking to and reading others’ experiences of sexual harassment.’ Further to this he submitted nine testimonials all speaking to his character and one of which emanated from his new employer.

In 2022, the SRA sought further statements from the female colleague after showing her the CCTV footage from the hotel. On 18 In so doing, she confirmed that she was seated at the same table as the accused, denied having made the remark attributed to
her by him and contended that she was ‘appalled’ by the suggestion that she had.

The female accepted having engaged in conversation with the accused both at the table and in the bar area and averred that was  consistent with her being a ‘very talkative and confident person’. She further stated that the bar area was very loud and she had to lean into the accused in order to hear what he was saying.  She confirmed that she could be seen touching the tie and arm of her alleged harasser which aligned with her character as a ‘tactile person’. She identified the point which her male colleague then placed ‘his right hand on my backside’ in the bar in response to which she reacted by ‘turning  away from him’.

Last year, the accused, through his representatives, after previously admitting his conduct was unacceptable, said he ‘did not accept’ his former colleagues statements, not those of the fixed shares partner who had gone to the venue and seen the footage in 2019.

His representatives said: 

“The CCTV footage does reflect the behaviour of someone who felt uncomfortable in the accused’s
presence and the female colleague was clearly flirting with him. It was not difficult to see how the lawyer would have considered her behaviour as flirtatious.”

The accused then further asserted that whilst he accepted that some of his behaviour was inappropriate, he did not appreciate that it was unwanted because he believed that his former colleague’s behaviour towards him was ‘equally sexual in nature and the principles of the firm had not been breached as they do not cover inappropriate sexual behaviour.’

The SRA ordered that the solicitor be suspended from practice for the period of three months to commence on the 30th January 2024 and it further ordered that he pay the costs of and incidental to the application and enquiry fixed in the sum of £10,000.

The accused was admitted to the Roll of Solicitors in 2016 and employed as a junior solicitor at the firm where the sexual misconduct took place, . The firm reported their employee to the SRA on 19 December 2019 further to receiving the woman’s
complaint. The firm advised the SRA that they had suspended their employee pending their own investigation. After the tribunal he was dismissed for gross misconduct after facts were revealed giving rise to the allegations.

Eve Tawfick, Editor

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