Solicitor struck off for non-criminal sexual conduct in the workplace

11th October 2023

We take a look at what is understood to be the first case involving a solicitor being struck off for non-criminal sexual conduct in the workplace.

Oliver Bretherton, a former director at international law firm Gowling WLG, was found by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (“SDT”) to have committed 70 acts of sexual misconduct.

The hearing took place in June 2023, with the written judgment first published on 29 September 2023.

The allegations concern Person A, who at the relevant time was an 18-year-old female colleague of Mr Bretherton.

Mr Bretherton first met Person A when interviewing her for a role at his firm. Messages began to be exchanged between them within a month of Person A starting her role and continued for approximately a year. Person A subsequently complained to the firm about his conduct towards her.

Mr Bretherton described the relationship between himself and Person A as a, “consensual sexual fantasy,” which was not physical save for one occasion when they kissed.

However, the SDT determined that he had caused significant and profound harm to Person A and took advantage of her age, naivete and the fact that it was her first job after leaving school.

The SDT’s findings included that Mr Bretherton:

  • asked Person A about her friends’ sex lives;
  • told her to wear skirts and dresses to work;
  • asked Person A to send him photos of her underwear;
  • told her he would like to have sex with her, “over the pool table“;
  • sent Person A a video of him masturbating and asked her to reciprocate;
  • asked Person A to wear a sex toy in the office.

The SDT concluded that Mr Bretherton was in a position of authority, and there existed, “a demonstrable theme of misogyny directed at young women.” It was held that his conduct was, “plainly in breach of his position of Trust as a Legal Director within the firm…”

The SDT also determined that Mr Bretherton’s involvement on the firm’s gender inequality committee, and flexible approach to working given his paternal responsibilities, “was advanced in an attempt to camouflage and detract from his nefarious conduct.”

In considering the appropriate sanction, the SDT did not accept that Mr Bretherton had shown insight. It held that any admissions he made were minimal and qualified. The SDT assessed Mr Bretherton’s misconduct as being at the highest end of the spectrum, and having dismissed lesser sanctions as being inappropriate, held that suspension for any period would similarly fail to reflect the grave departure from the standards expected of solicitors. The SDT therefore determined that an order striking Mr Bretherton off the roll was an appropriate and proportionate sanction.

Blake Morgan has experience acting for regulators and organisations conducting investigations. Find out more about our regulatory services here and our appointment to providing legal services to the Solicitors Regulation Authority here.


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