UK: Sexting solicitor says he didn’t see power imbalance with 18-year-old

The Law Society Gazette reports

Asenior solicitor who engaged in a sexual fantasy relationship with an 18-year-old female colleague has said he did not appreciate that there was a power imbalance at the time.

Oliver Bretherton, who was a director at global firm Gowling WLG, told the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal yesterday that the relationship was ‘very equal’ and that the woman, referred to as Person A, had fully consented to their exchange of explicit videos and messages. He denies intentionally taking advantage of the woman, who he had interviewed for her to get the job, and denies acting with a lack of integrity.

On day eight of the hearing, the tribunal heard that at one point Person A sent pictures of her immediately after sexual activity, which Bretherton received while he was on a holiday with his wife.

Nimi Bruce, for the Solicitors Regulation Authority, said Bretherton’s conduct was ‘appalling’ and suggested that he was in the ‘driving seat’ because of his senior position.

Bretherton said: ‘I viewed Person A as a mature adult who wanted to be taking part in a consensual relationship. This [the sex pictures] is the clearest indication of her desire to try and arouse me.’

Bruce replied: ‘You could have thought this needs to stop and stop now.’

Bretherton said: ‘I could have if I thought she didn’t want to willingly take part in it.’

Bruce: ‘You could have thought “perhaps my young colleague needs some help”?’

Bretherton: ‘I still don’t think she was doing anything she did not want to be doing.’

Bruce: ‘You could have thought “maybe this young colleague is vulnerable”?’

Bretherton replied: ‘I definitely didn’t see her coming across as vulnerable. She was coming across as incredibly willing and on multiple occasions was telling me how much she was enjoying it. I didn’t take this example at all as a warning sign. There was no warning sign at all until the point at which she turned round and said “I feel uncomfortable”. At that point I stopped it immediately.’

He added: ‘It was outside the office. The vast majority of what happened between me and Person A happened outside the office. I didn’t view the power imbalance at the time at all. She was giving me the complete opposite. She was very pro-active and instigating [it] and I viewed it on face value.’

Bruce suggested Bretherton sounded like he was blaming Person A and – when talking about her being sexually precocious – attempting to shame her.

He responded: ‘I am not trying to blame her at all. It was totally consensual and I am not in any way saying she made me do things I didn’t want to do at the time. It is very easy to reflect and look back with hindsight. I didn’t take into account the power imbalance but at the time I genuinely had no concern whatsoever.’

‘I am trying to give an accurate account of how this relationship worked. If there is any suggestion I am trying to shame her that is not the case at all.’

The tribunal has previously heard that Bretherton accepts he exchanged explicit messages but he denied several specific allegations made by Person A about their interactions in the office.

He denied directing her what to wear, denied telling her to come into the office with a sex toy, denied describing her as ‘vanilla’ because she was single, denied operating a reward and punishment system in the office and denied asking for pictures of her urinating.

On the allegation that he threw ping pong balls into the front part of her dress, and made her pick up the balls that dropped to the floor, he said there was ‘absolutely no way’ that happened. Addressing the allegation that he operated a remote control vibrator and set it off when Person A was speaking to an equity partner, Bretherton said: ‘I am incredulous about this allegation. It is so far from reality. This is anything but the truth.’

He acceped that he had failed to act with high moral standards and betrayed his wife but drew a distinction between that and his conduct as a solicitor.

‘On a professional basis I worked hard, I was an excellent supervisor, I love my family more than anything and made a mistake. I am very alive to the fact that I made a mistake and have had years of very difficult conversations. I will have to tell my little kid why I am plastered all over the internet. I have made a horrible misjudgement and there is not a day I don’t regret it.’

Bretherton, admitted in 2007, is now a banking and finance partner with virtual firm gunnercooke, advising on complex structured and secured real estate finance transactions.

The evidential part of the hearing finished on Friday morning. Bretherton’s wife appeared briefly as a character witness. Closing submissions will be made later this month.