Barrister fails to overturn six-month suspension for sexual comments to mini-pupil

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By CJ McKinney on

Robert Michael Kearney challenged delay in reporting vulgar remarks

An experienced criminal barrister has failed in a High Court bid to overturn a six-month suspension for making sexual comments to a mini-pupil.

Manchester-based Robert Michael Kearney, who was called to the bar in 1996, had challenged the delay of several years in reporting comments such as “eating pineapple makes semen taste better”.

But Mr Justice Soole said “I am not persuaded that the decisions of the Tribunal were wrong in any respect”.

The complainant, known only as Ms A, met Kearney in summer 2014 when she was working as a waitress in the same building as his chambers. He offered the aspiring barrister a mini-pupillage, which took place over three days in January 2015.

Ms A complained to friends and family about Kearney’s behaviour during the mini-pupillage. As recorded by the disciplinary tribunal, the barrister told her on one occasion that “he kept his nails short because you can’t finger women with long nails”. He also asked her “if she had ever had sex in her parents’ house”.

Kearney is also said to have “lent into Person A when the two were along inside a lift, smelt her neck and asked her what perfume she was wearing”.

In light of her family’s advice, Ms A decided not to take the matter further at the time. But in 2018, after reading about Kearney being fined for inappropriate behaviour towards a pupil barrister, she complained to the Bar Standards Board.

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The bar disciplinary tribunal suspended Kearney for six months.

Kearney’s High Court appeal mostly focused on the passage of time. He argued that the delay between the 2015 mini-pupillage — which he claimed not to remember — and the 2018 complaint made the disciplinary process both generally unfair and flawed on technical grounds.

He also challenged the six-month suspension as “contrary to the published guidelines, excessive, too focused upon general deterrence and unnecessarily punitive”. Kearney’s QC told the court that “the sanction was particularly harsh in the context of the financial hardship suffered by the criminal Bar generally, and by RK in particular, by reason of the pandemic”.

Soole didn’t go for any of it. “The effect of the Appellant’s argument”, the judge wrote, “is that the only reasonable conclusion in March 2019 was that, viewed prospectively, there could be no fair investigation because of the passage of time since the mini-pupillage in January 2015. I do not accept that argument on any of the bases advanced”.

What the case came down to was “the rival accounts of RK and Ms A”. The tribunal had concluded that she was an “accurate and reliable witness” while he was “unconvincing on many points” and “verging on the evasive”.

Soole said:

“This was all a classic issue of fact for this 5-person tribunal. I reject the contention that there was any error in the approach of the Tribunal to that task or in its conclusion.”

On the sanction, the High Court found that “the Tribunal was entitled to give particular and additional weight to the contrast between his relative seniority as a member of the Bar and her young age and position as a mini-pupil”. By contrast, “mitigating factors were limited”.

“Accordingly”, the judge concluded, “the appeal must be dismissed on all grounds”.

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