SRA issues notice on SLAPPs
Solicitors and law firms have been warned not to get involved in “abusive litigation” that aims to silence the “legitimate critics” of their clients.
The warning notice, published yesterday by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), comes amid a rise in reports of lawyers bringing a type of legal action known as a strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs) on behalf of their usually very wealthy clients.
The aim of the legal manoeuvre is to “harass or intimidate” another person who could be criticising or holding to account the firm’s client for their actions, and “thereby discouraging scrutiny of matters in the public interest”, the SRA said. The action is usually targeted at journalists, campaigners and whistleblowers.
The SRA notice warns firms not to act for clients in this way and outlines some of the activities that it views as “abusive litigation”, including bringing cases or allegations without merit, making unduly aggressive and intimidating threats, or claiming misleading outcomes such as exaggerated cost consequences or imprisonment in a civil matters.
The regulator does however recognise that lawyers can have a “legitimate role in encouraging journalists and others to ensure that what is published is legal and accurate, but that proceedings must be pursued properly”.
Paul Philip, SRA chief executive said: “SLAPPs pose a significant threat to the rule of law, free speech and a free press. The public rightly expect that solicitors should act with integrity. They should not be misusing litigation to prevent legitimate scrutiny from journalists, academics and campaigners.”
“This warning notice again makes clear our expectations. The right for clients to bring legitimate claims and for solicitors to act fearlessly in their interest is important. Yet representing your client’s interests does not override public interest obligations, so when solicitors cross the line into SLAPPS, we will take action.”
The regulator also provided a few pointers on the use of terms such as “private and confidential” or “without prejudice” in legal correspondence.
Accepting there are instances such labelling may be appropriate, the SRA said solicitors need to make sure they have considered the reasons for such labelling and whether further explanation of the label is required, particularly where the the recipient may be vulnerable or unrepresented. It added that unless there is a specific legal reason which prevents this, recipients of legal letters should generally be able to disclose that they have received them.
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