British lawyers warned of “abusive litigation” to intimidate critics

Some law firms need to do more to protect themselves against the risk that wealthy individuals will use UK lawyers to silence legitimate criticism, a statutory regulator has warned.

The Solicitors Regulation Authority, which oversees solicitors in England and Wales, said on Tuesday a review of 25 unnamed law firms into the use of so-called strategic actions against public participation or slapping found “good practice” among many solicitors.

However, she cautioned that there are “areas where companies need to improve,” noting a lack of organizational policies and procedures for dealing with litigation or reputation management matters.

Slapps refers to attorneys working for powerful clients pursuing “abusive litigation” designed to “harass or intimidate” opponents, according to the SRA, which issued a warning to law firms last year.

His review comes amid growing concerns that wealthy businesses and individuals, including Russian oligarchs, have used the threat of strict English defamation laws to evade scrutiny and to intimidate journalists, authors and others into restricting or abandoning critical articles or books.

Justice Secretary Dominic Raab pledged to crack down on the practice last year, pledging to introduce new legislation to curb abuses of the UK legal system as soon as parliamentary time permits.

In its review, the SRA said many lawyers “have shown they have a good understanding of the risks”. No evidence was found that “the companies we checked abused the court process.”

But it warned that lawyers specializing in defamation and reputation management need better training, as too many have a “poor understanding” of their duties to report potential wrongdoing by others.

According to the regulator, which is investigating 40 live cases related to slapping, 11 department heads and six law firm attorneys said they had to tell a client they couldn’t pursue litigation because it was abusive or unfair.

SRA Chief Executive Paul Philip said while most lawyers take their duties seriously, the review shows that “some firms need to do more” and that all “need to focus on meeting the high standards that we all expect “.

“We will conduct another review of companies in this space while redoubling our efforts to ensure our message gets across,” he added.

Andrew Pavlovic, a partner at law firm CM Murray, said the SRA’s findings mean it “would be interesting to see how many of the 40 cases of alleged slapping . . . actually lead to disciplinary action”.

He said the regulator’s conclusions suggested companies were generally aware of their regulatory obligations, adding: “Cases where companies are involved in slapping are likely to be the exception rather than the rule.”

The review comes after the Treasury Department said last month that it would review its own procedures and examine the system of issuing licenses to sanctioned persons.

This announcement followed reports that the Treasury Department had granted special licenses to Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, allowing him to circumvent British sanctions and use a British law firm to sue a British journalist for defamation.

Prigozhin’s lawyers in London all stopped working for him long before he admitted to running the Wagner mercenary group. British lawyers warned of “abusive litigation” to intimidate critics

Adam Bradshaw

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