Tory MP’s bill aims to stop the powerful using the law to stifle public debate | Media law

Ministers are being urged to back a private member’s bill designed to penalise wealthy public figures who exploit the court system for “legalised intimidation” of investigative journalists, campaigners and watchdogs.

The bill, put forward by Conservative MP Bob Seely on Tuesday, is intended to put pressure on the government to move forward with its own promised legislation to tackle vexatious legal claims designed to silence debate on issues of public interest, known as strategic lawsuits against public participation, or Slapps.

While the previous government pledged in July to give courts in England and Wales new powers to dismiss lawsuits employed by wealthy claimants to stifle free speech, it has yet to put forward any draft legislation.

Seely said ministerial support for his defamation, privacy, freedom of expression, data protection, legal services and private investigators bill, would stop “unethical” British law firms from providing a “one-stop shop” for wealthy oligarchs and politicians hoping “to spy, to snoop, to smear, and to sue” their critics.

“As a business model, it is a form of legalised intimidation, effectively legal gangsterism” deployed by organised criminals, authoritarian states, oligarchs and corrupt corporations, which Seely said “undermines the good reputation of London”.

Slapps came into the spotlight following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, amid allegations that oligarchs close to Vladimir Putin had for years used the threat of legal action in UK courts to shut down criticism and deter investigations into their affairs.

Seely accused the legal profession of turning a blind eye to the practice, saying the Solicitors Regulation Authority had failed to take adequate action against offending firms.

“One wonders at the conniving silence of the Bar Council, the Law Society and Solicitors Regulatory Authority (SRA), which seem to spend their time doing very very little regulation,” he said.

In a separate hearing in front of the House of Lords’ communications and digital committee, the SRA’s chief executive, Paul Philip, said the regulator only became aware of the use of Slapps in early 2022, following the invasion of Ukraine.

The MP urged the government to accelerate the introduction of its own rules, or back his bill, which could fail to move to a second reading without ministerial support.

Seely suggested the UK could follow in the footsteps of the US, which fines legal firms for bringing unwarranted claims against journalists who are reporting stories deemed to be in the public interest.

“If we fine them £1m every time … [they] brought in a Slapp, I think we would be able to send this industry packing in a short period, and, God forbid, some of these lawyers would have to make an ethical living.”

Leave a Comment