The head of the body that regulates the solicitors’ profession in England and Wales has told a House of Lords committee that it is investigating around 40 suspected cases of SLAPPs (strategic litigation against public participation).
The Chief Executive of the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) Paul Philip said that he would consider seeking new powers to prevent wealthy individuals and corporations from abusing the legal process to gag journalists and critics.
A thematic review of the issue would be published in the next few weeks, Philip said.
According to the Law Society Gazette of England and Wales, however, he resisted calls to 'name and shame' firms identified as acting in this area, or who were simply under investigation for alleged abuses of the litigation process.
Doubts about powers
Philip was appearing, alongside SRA general counsel Juliet Oliver, before the Communications and Digital Committee, which is investigating 'lawfare and free speech'.
Members of the committee repeatedly questioned whether the regulator took the issue seriously – and raised doubts about its sanctioning powers.
Revealing that "about 40 open matters” had come to the SRA's attention since May last year, Philip said that experience suggested that about half would have come to a conclusion by the middle of this year.
The Gazette said that committee chair Baroness Stowell of Beeston (Tina Stowell) questioned him on the speed of the process.
Nine to ten months was “the usual” time for an investigation, Phillip said. He added that no firms had yet been sanctioned for SLAPP conduct, because the issue “only came to our attention in late spring last year”.
Philip stressed, however, that the regulator had been looking into the general issue of the aggressive conduct of litigation before this.
According to the Gazette, the SRA's fining powers came under particular criticism. Challenged that the £20,000 maximum fine “doesn’t sound very much”, Phillip told the committee that it had only just been increased from £2,000.
“Wow,” Stowell retorted.
“It is a pea-shooter against a tank,” Phillip agreed. He noted that the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal could impose higher fines.
Earlier this week, Conservative MP Bob Seely tabled a private members’ bill designed to stop what he described as “legalised intimidation” of journalists, campaigners, and regulators.
He signalled that the move was designed to put pressure on the British Government to introduce its own legislation on the issue.