Former Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer Partner Ordered To Pay £235,000 Following Sexual Activity With ‘Incapacitated’ Colleague

The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) has ruled that Ryan Beckwith, a former Partner at one of London’s high profile law firms, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, has to pay a £35,000 fine for engaging in sexual activity with an intoxicated junior female colleague. He has also been ordered to pay £200,000 in legal costs.

Case background

The incident occurred in 2016 when the female complainant (Person A) and Ryan Beckwith joined work colleagues for after work drinks. After Person A had drank too much alcohol, to the extent that her judgment was impaired, and she and Mr Beckwith returned to her London flat where they engaged in sexual activity.

Following a nine day hearing, the SDT found that Mr Beckwith had failed to act with integrity and had brought the legal profession into disrepute.

Nicola Lucking, who chaired the SDT panel, commented that Mr Beckwith “knew or ought to have known that his conduct was inappropriate”, adding that he “knew or ought to have known that Person A was intoxicated to the extent that her judgment was impaired”.

Following the ruling, Ryan Beckwith resigned from his position at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer. However, he avoided being struck off from practising law in the future.

Following the ruling, Senior Partner at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Edward Braham, commented:

“We are running a firm-wide programme to ensure our values and behaviours are consistently experienced across the firm”.

A warning for businesses

The ruling from the SDT is the first time that they found misconduct regarding sexual activity between work colleagues and Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer have since announced that they have set up a conduct committee and confirmed that employees will face potential earnings penalties if they act inappropriately.

The Equality Act 2010 (EqA) prohibits three types of harassment:

  1. Harassment related to one of the nine protected characteristics listed in in the EqA (including harassment on the grounds of sex);
  2. Sexual harassment; and
  3. Less favourable treatment because an employee rejects or submits to unwanted conduct of a sexual nature or that is related to sex.

Under the EqA, an employer can be vicariously liable for any act of harassment committed by an employee during the course of their employment and compensation if an employee successfully brings such a claim is uncapped. Additionally, the Government Equalities Office recently conducted a consultation seeking views on whether a new duty on employers to protect workers from harassment and monitor and report instances of sexual harassment should be introduced, and so the obligations on employers could be set to become more onerous.

In light of the above, taking appropriate steps to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace is important for all employers, from a commercial, financial and reputational perspective. There is an ever increasing sense that law firms and other businesses need to be more prescriptive in relation to the rules that they have in place regarding alcohol consumption and work relationships, and reminding staff of these rules. It would be prudent for employers to have an effective anti-harassment policy in place clearly setting out the standards of conduct expected of employees, how any breaches of that policy should be dealt with and the support and mechanisms in place for employees who feel they have been victims of harassment.

Ryan Beckwith

How can Nelsons help?

Ella Sheppard is a Solicitor in our expert Employment Law team.

If you require any assistance with drafting an anti-harassment policy or advice regarding dealing with allegations of harassment in the workplace, please contact Ella or another member of our team in Derby, Leicester or Nottingham on 0800 024 1976 or via our online form.

We are also able to provide training on discrimination and harassment issues for employees and those in managerial positions.