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Lords committee calls for action to tackle the use of so-called SLAPPs

Thursday 26 January 2023

A parliamentary committee has written to the Ministry of Justice and DCMS calling for action to tackle the use of so-called SLAPPs (strategic litigation against public participation) by wealthy individuals to silence their critics, a process also known as “lawfare”.

The House of Lords Select Committee on Communications and Digital called for: the creation of a new SLAPPs defence fund paid for by wrongdoers; more action from the regulator and multi-million pound increases in fining powers to deter abusive lawsuits; greater oversight of law firms using ‘black PR’ and private intelligence agencies to harass journalists; and action to close loopholes around money laundering and legal advice.

The committee has also demanded explanations from the Treasury over how the head of a Russian paramilitary group was granted an official licence to pursue legal action against a UK journalist, despite being subject to official sanctions.

Letter to the Chancellor

The letters come after the committee took evidence at a hearing on 24 January about a lawsuit taken by Yevgeny Progozhin against British journalist Eliot Higgins, founder of investigative website Bellingcat.

Mr Progozhin, who was subject to sanctions, sued Mr Higgins over reports about his ownership of the Russian paramilitary firm Wagner Group. The committee heard reports that HM Treasury had then enabled Mr Progozhin’s British lawyers to bypass sanctions to enable them to pursue a libel case against the British journalist. Mr Higgins has reportedly been left with an estimated £70,000 in legal costs.

The Committee has called on the Chancellor to release information on the processes which led to the Office of Financial Sanctions Implementation facilitating this case; how many similar cases have occurred in the past five years; and actions being taken to prevent similar occurrences in future.

Letter to Ministry of Justice and DCMS

The Committee has called on the Justice Secretary and Culture Secretary to take stronger action against SLAPPs and encourage more action from the regulator, the Solicitors Regulation Authority. The Committee calls for:

  • SLAPPs to be included in the National Action Plan for the Safety of Journalists, to provide a mechanism for reporting issues and receiving advice and support.
  • A SLAPPs defence fund, paid for in part by those pursuing SLAPP cases. This could involve using fines levied by the regulator, or enabling a court to order SLAPP claimants to contribute to the defence fund.
  • Greater action from the regulator, which the committee noted had “not provided a sufficient deterrent” against SLAPPs so far.
  • Increasing the regulator’s “inadequate” fining powers from £25,000 to £250 million, in line with its fining powers for other issues.
  • 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.
  • Closing money laundering loopholes which currently have limited application to the payment for legal advice. The committee noted this was “ironic” as money laundering is itself often a subject of investigative journalism, and the illegitimate funding could be used to pay law firms to silence journalists’ investigations into such activities.

Chair comment

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 SRA 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.”

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