The party's over: trainee solicitor fined for drunken sexual misconduct

Iain Miller, partner at Kingsley Napley, considers a real case where a trainee solicitor was fined by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) for drunkenly harassing colleagues at the office Christmas party.
A group of colleagues celebrate at the office Christmas party wearing festive hats and raising glasses of champagne.

Harassment and abusive behaviour

A former trainee solicitor who got drunk and inappropriately touched colleagues during a Christmas party has been fined by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA).

The trainee had attended a work meal in December 2019, after which some colleagues went to a nightclub.

The trainee’s conduct led to dismissal from the law firm.

Prior to the event, staff at the firm had been specifically warned about the applicability of the SRA Standards and Regulations and the need to maintain professional standards at festive gatherings.

The SRA said that during the evening, the trainee got increasingly drunk and offered one colleague a ‘roofied’ drink (slang term for a date-rape drug), before slapping them on the bottom. There was no suggestion that anyone’s drink was spiked.

Later in the evening, the trainee solicitor squeezed another colleague’s bottom.

Despite being pushed away and told not to do it, the pulling and touching continued with repeated attempts to grab a colleague around the waist and hips.

Following an internal investigation by the firm, the trainee solicitor was dismissed and subsequently self-reported their conduct to the SRA.

The trainee told the regulator they were so drunk that they could not remember the events of that evening.

They did, however, accept that the behaviour described must have taken place.

The SRA finding

Fully admitting that their actions were inappropriate, they accepted they had acted without integrity and damaged public trust in the profession.

They were found to have breached:

  • Principle 2: “You must act in a way that upholds public trust and confidence in the solicitors' profession”
  • Principle 5: “You must ... act with integrity”

The SRA acknowledged the trainee’s remorse and insight into the misconduct and were satisfied that the trainee solicitor understood that the behaviour amounted to a breach of both professional obligations and “their own personal moral code”.

The trainee submitted character references and assured the regulator they were “embarrassed and humiliated” by the behaviour.

The SRA said it was no mitigation that the trainee was drunk, as the responsibility for the behaviour was still theirs.

In deciding that a fine was appropriate, the SRA said it took account of the trainee’s admissions and that they had, “voluntarily and without invitation”, written letters of apology to the two colleagues prior to the SRA’s involvement.

The SRA said it accepted that this was “a one-off event” and did not form a pattern of misconduct beyond the evening in question.

The trainee was fined £2,000 and paid £600 to the SRA toward the costs of the investigation.

Your ethical obligations

The case demonstrates the serious consequences of a breach of the SRA Principles and highlights the overarching high-level standards of ethical behaviour expected of trainees and solicitors.

It is important that solicitors understand that the same ethical obligations of professional conduct apply in their personal as well as their professional lives, both in the workplace and outside of it.

The SRA has published guidance on sexual misconduct to help you understand your obligations and how to comply with them.

The SRA’s internal fining powers have increased from £2,000 to £25,000.

We’ve urged the SRA to introduce further transparency and accountability safeguards to ensure excessive and unjustified fines are not imposed.

Learn what the SRA’s increased fining powers mean for solicitors

Mitigating your risks

As a member of the Law Society, you are part of a community of over 200,000 solicitors with access to a range of benefits to support you and help you thrive and prosper.

This includes practical resources and world-class learning to help you mitigate your risks, such as our online course, SRA Principles and SRA Code of Conduct for Solicitors, RELs and RFLs.

Legal Compliance magazine offers expert commentary on regulatory issues. Misconduct matters sets out what law firms need to know about the regulator’s investigation process for sexual misconduct.

We’re here to support solicitors in recognising and handling difficult professional situations. Discover our support for solicitors on ethical issues

Find out more

You can keep up to date with ethical issues with the Solicitor's Handbook 2022. It covers key changes, including the Beckwith case, sexual misconduct and the private lives of solicitors.

For a comprehensive guide to practice and procedure in the tribunal, refer to  the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (2nd edition).

Join the Risk and Compliance Section with key benefits such as Legal Compliance magazine as well as regular webinars and podcasts discussing ethical issues.

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