Britain’s Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has issued a warning on strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs).
According to the Law Society Gazette of England and Wales, the warning states that behaviours likely to result in regulatory action include “seeking to threaten or advance meritless claims – including in pre-action correspondence, and including claims where it should be clear that a defence to that type of claim will be successful based on what you know”.
The body adds: “The warning recognises that lawyers can have a legitimate role in encouraging journalists and others to ensure that what is published is legal and accurate,” but states that proceedings must be pursued properly.
Panel discussed legal intimidation
The Gazette says that the announcement came during a conference on SLAPPs, and shortly before a panel discussing legal intimidation and ethics, chaired by media-law solicitor Mark Stephens, began.
The SRA warning aims to advise solicitors “to guard against getting involved in abusive litigation aimed at silencing legitimate critics”.
The Gazette reports that the conference panel discussed pre-action letters – often labelled ‘confidential’ or ‘not for publication’ – and what was described as the “hugely helpful” SRA warning.
“They are essentially saying it is a gross breach to mislead recipients of correspondence,” Stephens said, referring to the SRA advice.
“Examples of abusive conduct or misuse of the legal system include bringing cases or allegations without merit, making unduly aggressive and intimidating threats, or claiming misleading outcomes such as exaggerated cost consequences or imprisonment in a civil claim,” he added.
Speaking on the panel, Caoilfhionn Gallagher KC of Doughty Street Chambers said: “There is an attempt [by firms] to shut down reporting with correspondence as a matter of public interest, and this is hugely helpful by the SRA.”
Pia Sarma, legal head of Times newspapers and a member of the panel, said: “The SRA stuff is very interesting. They went further than I thought they would.”
She added: “Anything which has features of abuse can be considered as a SLAPP – including pre-trial contact. The guidance from the SRA today will look at the number of letters [sent] and the nature of letters too. It is all beginning to come together.”
The SRA said that it was investigating 29 cases where firms may be involved in SLAPPs, and that it had also made contact with MPs who have raised similar concerns in parliament.