UK Politicians Seek To Prevent Oligarchs’ “Lawfare” From Intimidating Reporters

The UK media report on oligarchs and wealthy clients using big name law firms to intimidate and silence journalists, threatening freedom of the media and giving rise to a cross-party effort to prevent such intimidation and misuse of wealth.

The Guardian and legal media report that a a cross-party group of MPs is seeking to introduce legislation to prevent deep pockets from using the UK legal system to “intimidate and destroy” reporters.

British MPs urged the government to better protect the media and citizens from abusive legal action known as strategic lawsuits against public participation, or SLAPPS

The acronym ‘SLAPP’, has become increasingly well known in the US, referring to legal claims which are perceived to be brought in order to silence a critic by engaging them in costly litigation, rather than because of their legal merit.  They are mostly defamation claims, although other legal claims relating to the publication of information may also relevant, such as privacy or data protection.  

Lawyers and campaigners describe Slapps as a form of legal harassment that exploits lengthy and expensive legal procedures to silence journalists, critics and watchdogs.

David Davis, a Conservative MP and former cabinet minister, said “nefarious” actors were using the justice system “to threaten, intimidate and put the fear of God into British journalists, citizens, officials and media organisations.”

Davis described such lawsuits as “lawfare” and referenced examples where reporters had faced “reputational and financial ruin in defending themselves from these malevolent cases”.

The Lawfare Law Firms

So which big name law firms handle such ‘lawfare’ work?

The MPs referred to those that have made big money handling the lawfare cases.

Davis said: “It is very clear that some London-based law firms have found an incredibly profitable niche that they are willing to pursue without too much concern about the outcome. I think the professional bodies for those law firms should be looking very hard at them, as should the government.”

Another Tory MP, Bob Seely, said the UK had a “cottage industry of lawfare”. He said: “If we allow the cancer of the selling of intimidation services by high-end legal firms, it will not do us any good in the long run, just as in the long run letting mafias launder money would also be bad for us.”

“We need to bring in anti-Slapp legislation, and we need to go after those lawyers – dare I call them slappers – who use such tactics” Bob Seely said.

The MPs highlighted recent cases brought against investigative journalists including the Financial Times reporter Tom Burgis, who is the subject of libel actions brought by the Kazakh mining company ENRC, and Catherine Belton, the author of a recent book about Vladimir Putin, who last year faced a barrage of libel actions brought by multiple Russian billionaires and the state-controlled oil company Rosneft.

Catherine Belton
Catherine Belton. Photograph: @catherinebelton/twitter

Two MPs, Seely and Labour’s Liam Byrne, referred to the law firms involved in such actions including Mishcon de Reya, Schillings, Harbottle & Lewis, CMS and Carter-Ruck.

Sir Robert Neill, who chairs the Commons justice select committee, indicated that although there were rulews regulating law firms in the UK he hoped that MPs would support the legislation..

“We should not mischaracterise the position by saying that there is a high level of cynicism in the legal profession; there is not, and I do not believe that there is a failure of regulation either,” he added.

The justice minister, James Cartlidge, agreed that Slapps actions “represent an abuse of the legal system”, but said the government “must be cautious to respond to Slapps in a proportionate way that continues our tradition of balancing individual rights with the public good”.

Contacted for comment by The Guardian, a spokesperson for Mishcon de Reya did not provide an on-the-record statement for publication. Schillings, CMS, Harbottle & Lewis and Carter-Ruck did not respond to a request for comment.

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