House of Lords Committee calls for action on SLAPPs
UK government asked to tackle the use of SLAPPs by wealthy individuals to silence critics
The House of Lords select committee, the Communications and Digital Committee, has written a letter to the UK Ministry of Justice, HM Treasury and Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport calling for action to tackle the use of strategic litigation against public participation (SLAPPs) by wealthy individuals to silence critics.
The Committee has specifically called for explanations from the UK Treasury over how the head of a Russian paramilitary group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, was granted an official licence to pursue legal action against a UK journalist, despite being subject to official sanctions.
SLAPPs use or threaten legal action to silence, intimidate or harass critics, which includes journalists. The plaintiff, usually, does not normally expect to win the lawsuit, but instead aims to force the defendant into silence through fear, intimidation or mounting legal costs.
The Committee, which heard further evidence on SLAPPs on 24 January, states that more action is needed to support those facing SLAPPs and to address gaps in the regulatory oversight of solicitors. The letter sets out a series of non-legislative measures that the Committee thinks should be taken as the UK government prepares to legislate in this area, which include: the establishment of a SLAPPs defence fund, which could involve using fines levied by the regulator, or enabling a court to order SLAPP claimants to contribute to the defence fund; greater action by the regulator, which the Committee notes has “not provided a sufficient deterrent” against SLAPPs so far; increasing the regulator’s fining powers from £25,000 to £250 million; increasing oversight of the relationship between law firms and ‘black PR’ and private intelligence organisations, which may be used as part of a SLAPP case to monitor and intimidate journalists; and closing money laundering loopholes which currently have limited application to the payment for legal advice.
Committee chair Baroness Stowell of Beeston said, “The current level of activity to tackle SLAPPs is wholly inadequate. The regulator is not properly equipped with the powers necessary to deter law firms against abusive practices. But it needs to demonstrate greater boldness in holding law firms to account to inspire greater confidence. The decent law firms will stand to gain from a strong regulator, and should support the Solicitors Regulation Authority in being much more proactive and open in their investigations and penalties. Meanwhile the Treasury is apparently helping sanctioned Russian paramilitary owners pursue libel cases against UK journalists. We have called for clarity on how this was allowed to happen and how we can ensure it never happens again.”