Water cooler and triangular chairs

SLAPPs – a round up of the latest developments for the SRA

02 February 2023. Published by Graham Reid, Partner and Charlotte Thompson, Associate

The last week or so has seen a burst of activity on SLAPPs, alongside criticism of the SRA. This will be of interest to lawyers and their insurers.

The acronym SLAPP refers to strategic litigation against public participation. They involve the use of threats of legal action to silence, intimidate or harass critics. As noted in our last blogs (details at the end), the topic has been on the SRA's radar since Russia's invasion of Ukraine. In recent months, activity has stepped up a gear.

The SRA before a House of Lords Committee

On 24 January, the SRA's Chief Executive, Paul Philip, appeared in front of the House of Lords Communications and Digital Committee to discuss the SRA's work in the area (the recording can be viewed here). 

Mr Philip stated that about 40 suspected cases of SLAPPs were under investigation and estimated that around half will come to a conclusion by the middle of this year. Committee Chair, Baroness Stowell of Beeston, was critical of the speed of the process but Mr Philip noted that the timing was normal. Mr Philip also informed the Committee that we can expect a thematic review from the SRA to be published in the next few weeks. 

The Committee touched on the SRA's fining powers and was incredulous at the meagreness of the top level of fine (£25,000). Mr Philip described it as being like a "pea shooter against a tank", whilst noting that the SRA could refer cases to the SDT who could impose higher fines. Of course, the proposed Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill proposes unlimited fining powers for the SRA for disciplinary matters relating to "economic crime."

Committee members explored whether AML rules could be extended to deal with SLAPPs work, which Mr Philip expressed interest in. 

After the Committee hearing, the House of Lords wrote to the Ministry of Justice, HM Treasury and Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, and called for greater action from the SRA, referring to it not being "properly equipped with the powers necessary to deter law firms against abusive practices." 

It called for an increase of the SRA's "inadequate" finding powers from £25,000 to £250m, and the closure of money laundering loopholes, which have limited application to the payment for legal advice: there is the risk that the proceeds of laundered money can be used to pay law firms to pursue SLAPP cases to silence journalists' requests. The Committee also suggested a SLAPPs defence fund, involving fines levied by the regulator, or enabling a court to order SLAPP claimants to contribute, similar to that launched in the US in 2021. 

Bob Seely's private member's bill

The same day, Conservative MP Bob Seely put forward a private member's bill, intended to put pressure on the government to advance legislation to tackle SLAPPs. Mr Seely's speech named firms he saw as perpetuating SLAPPs and referred to "the conniving silence of the Bar Council, the Law Society and Solicitors Regulation Authority, which seems to spend very little time regulating". The second reading is due on 24 March 2023. 

The Wagner Group

Finally, documents obtained by OpenDemocracy website allegedly show that the UK Treasury granted special licences enabling British lawyers of the sanctioned Russian founder of the Wagner group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, to sue a UK journalist for libel. The Wagner Group has been linked with numerous atrocities. The case has been described in Parliament as "a perfect example of a SLAPP." The debate which followed the revelations can be read here. The House of Lords Communications and Digital Committee has asked various questions of the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the matter. 

All in all, a testing week for the SRA, but one which might result in an increase to the regulator's powers.

RPC's Media and Disputes Team has significant experience in acting for Defendants in relation to SLAPPs litigation. Get in touch with us at Anti-SLAPP@rpc.co.uk.

Previous RPC blogs can be found here:

  1. SRA Issues Warning Notice on solicitors' involvement in SLAPPs
  2. UK Anti-SLAPP coalition's model Anti-SLAPP law