The solicitors’ watchdog has said it will take action to investigate and prosecute cases of sexual misconduct that happen away from the office – even if those incidents occur at a pub or in a person’s home.
The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) said it will intervene in cases of sexual misconduct that take place in private settings if the incidents in question are sufficiently linked to work.
In setting out new guidance, the independent regulator said it will consider various factors, including the seriousness of the misconduct and its proximity to the workplace, in determining whether to intervene.
The new guidance comes after the High Court in 2020 said the SRA should only intervene on matters with sufficient links to the legal profession, after the watchdog fined Freshfields partner Ryan Beckwith £35,000 over a consensual sexual relationship with a junior colleague.
The former Magic Circle law firm partner successfully appealed the SRA’s decision as the High Court ruled that professionals are not required to be “paragons of virtue” in their private lives.
In its new guidance, the SRA said it will intervene in cases that take place at work related events, including Christmas parties, company holidays, and after work drinks.
The SRA will also look at cases that happen after those work-related events, even if the individuals involved leave the main group to go to a private setting, such as a restaurant or hotel room.
In determining whether to intervene, the watchdog will also consider the seriousness of the misconduct, including whether it involves violence, threats, or manipulation, and the vulnerability of the victim, including levels of intoxication.
Andrew Pavlovic, a partner at CM Murray who specialises in SRA investigations, said that while “in some cases, the connection between the misconduct and the profession will be obvious… it is more difficult to draw the line [in cases of] non-criminal conduct taking place outside the office.”
He explained that any case involving “aggravating factors” will be considered serious, as he said the guidance is intended to emphasis the SRA’s “zero tolerance attitude to sexual misconduct”.
The guidance comes after the SRA last month said it plans to cease fining lawyers for sexual misconduct, with a view to striking them off instead.