Tories call for action over legal threats from powerful figures facing scrutiny
Ministers are under pressure to speed up action against the use of legal tactics by powerful figures to silence legitimate criticism. This comes after a surge in investigations into their use.
The Solicitors Regulatory Authority (SRA) warned the profession against employing such tactics at the end of last year, but says their use has increased since then, and it is now examining 40 cases.
The government has promised action on so-called Slapps – strategic lawsuits against public participation – amid concerns that they are being used to stop legitimate questions being asked about oligarchs, the ultra-wealthy and other powerful figures. Impatient with government inaction, politicians including senior Tories are now launching a series of attempts to toughen the law.
A law firm accused of using Slapp-style tactics – against an independent tax expert who helped reveal that Nadhim Zahawi was under investigation last year – has said it is taking the claims “very seriously”.
The expert, Dan Neidle, accused lawyers at Osborne Clarke acting for the Tory chairman of attempting to silence him by sending demands that he retract his statements and warning that publishing their correspondence would be “a very serious matter”. A spokesperson for Osborne Clarke told the Observer: “We are taking this matter very seriously and responding to the issues that have been raised through the appropriate channels. We have no further comment.”
The SRA warned law firms against such tactics last November, saying: “Representing your client’s interests does not override wider public interest obligations and duties to the courts.” Insiders say greater awareness of the tactics may have led to more complaints.
Dominic Raab, the justice secretary, promised to toughen the law last summer. A government consultation concluded in proposals to allow judges to throw out spurious claims at an earlier stage, and protect defendants from some costs. However, no new legislation has yet emerged.
David Davis, the former Brexit secretary, is among those agitating for action. Last week, he proposed legal amendments that would tackle Slapps aimed at stopping concerns being raised about a potential economic crime. He said the increase in investigations demonstrated that the need for legislation is growing rapidly.
“The government’s current plans to incorporate that into the bill of rights will be far too slow as a solution to this problem,” he said. “We need this dealt with now, because of the current rate of increase, but also because it is the use of Slapps that has allowed the City of London to be corrupted by dirty money.”
The Law Society is also pressing for action. “The Law Society consulted experts within our profession, including those who represent defendants in Slapp cases,” said a spokesperson. “The overwhelming consensus was that there was a pressing need for reform to stamp out these kinds of cases and abuse of processes.”
Paul Philip, the SRA’s chief executive, said: ‘Slapps pose a significant threat to the rule of law, free speech and a free press. Solicitors should not be misusing litigation to prevent legitimate scrutiny from journalists, academics and campaigners, and we have made this absolutely clear. If there is evidence of wrongdoing we will take robust action.
“There is real need for an effective deterrent, so we welcome the calls to significantly increase our fining powers. We will continue to work closely with the committee and others as we move forward.”
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice said new legislation would be introduced “as soon as parliamentary time allows”.