A House of Lords committee has said that the body that regulates the solicitors’ profession in England and Wales should have powers to fine firms up to Stg £250 million for abusive litigation in cases involving so-called SLAPPs (strategic litigation against public participation).
The House of Lords Select Committee on Communications and Digital made the recommendation in a letter to the Lord Chancellor.
The letter came after an evidence-gathering session last week with anti-SLAPP campaigners and Paul Philip, the chief executive of the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA).
Philip described the regulator's current fining power as “a pea-shooter against a tank”.
The Law Society Gazette of England and Wales says that the committee’s call follows a mounting political row over revelations that the sanctioned head of the Russian mercenary group Wagner was able to secure the release of funds in 2021 to sue an investigative reporter in London.
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak told the House of Commons last week that the British Government was “looking at” the granting of a licence by the Office of Financial Sanctions Implementation to Yevgeney Prigozhin to instruct lawyers in London.
Prigozhin's case against Eliot Higgins, the founder of the investigative group Bellingcat, was dropped last year.
The firm instructed in the case, Discreet Law, ceased acting in March last year. It has stressed that it “at all times complied with ... legal and professional obligations”.
The committee's letter calls for:
- The creation of a new SLAPPs defence fund paid for partly by those pursuing SLAPP cases,
- More action from the regulator, and an increase in its “inadequate” fining powers,
- Greater oversight of law firms using ‘black PR’ and private intelligence agencies to harass journalists, and
- Action to close loopholes on money-laundering and legal advice.
The committee noted that money-laundering was 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.
“The current level of activity to tackle SLAPPs is wholly inadequate,” said committee chair Baroness Stowell of Beeston.
She stated that, while the regulator was not properly equipped with the powers necessary to deter law firms against abusive practices, it also needed to demonstrate “greater boldness” in holding law firms to account.