Exclusive: Allow courts to fine lawyers who bring SLAPPs, says Browder

Browder: UK is riding on a vapour trail of respectability

The courts should have the power to issue big fines for law firms that bring SLAPPs, global anti-corruption campaigner Bill Browder has told Legal Futures.

He also claimed that there were plenty of City law firms happy to assist dictators, kleptocrats and others in moving dirty money.

Mr Browder heads the Global Magnitsky Justice Campaign and was instrumental in the creation of the Magnitsky Act in the USA, which led to targeted visa bans and asset freezes on Russian human rights abusers and corrupt officials.

Other countries have followed suit and, in 2020, the UK government introduced a Magnitsky Act-style sanctions regime targeting those involved in serious human rights abuses and violations.

After announcing it, then Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab met with Mr Browder and Sergei Magnitsky’s widow and son, Natalia and Nikita. Mr Magnitsky was Mr Browder’s Russian lawyer, who was imprisoned without trial and tortured after uncovering and testifying to a huge state fraud. He died in jail in 2009.

Mr Browder recently spoke at a meeting of the government’s Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs) Taskforce, having himself been on the receiving end of what he considered to be two SLAPPs which were thrown out by the High Court.

He told Legal Futures that he believed lawyers who were involved in bringing SLAPPs should also be punished, not just the claimants.

He has reported one law firm to the Solicitors Regulation Authority but that was four years ago and its investigation is ongoing. “Justice delayed is justice denied,” Mr Browder said.

He continued: “There are plenty of law firms that would be happy to take dictator clients and other types of people. My proposed solution to this is that there should be a penalty imposed by a judge at the moment of the decision against law firms who were found guilty of bringing SLAPPs.

“I know me coming in as an outsider and saying something like this sounds anathema to most people, but I guarantee you that, based on incentives – and I know incentives as a businessperson – it would stop in a heartbeat.”

While a single lawyer may view doing something bad as worth the risk, “his partners won’t if there’s money coming out of their pockets”. Law firms would suddenly be much more careful about the cases and clients they took on, he said.

While welcoming the SLAPPs Bill currently going through Parliament, Mr Browder argued that it was only when “you actually hit people in the pocketbook that’s everything changes… until you do that, people are dancing around the head of a needle finding ways and loopholes and opportunities to avoid these types of laws”.

More broadly, his view was that being a lawyer did not determine whether they would become involved in misconduct of this nature.

“I’ve met some heroic lawyers but I’ve also met some absolutely evil lawyers in this long and terrible struggle that I’ve been involved in. And it has nothing to do with the profession – it has to do with the individuals and people’s personal values, integrity and morals.”

American by birth, he has lived in the UK for 35 years and is a British citizen. He said the sense that things were done ‘properly’ here has allowed people to “get away with a lot”.

He explained: “When Cyprus does really dirty stuff, the whole world comes down on them like a ton of bricks. This country is riding on a vapour trail of respectability, which allows them to do a lot more bad stuff and get away with it…

“There are a lot of very cynical people in the legal profession and in the City of London, and the only thing people are afraid of is financial consequences and personal legal consequences like going to jail. If you create those, people don’t do bad stuff.”

He was sceptical too of the argument that City law firms now have rigorous procedures for taking on clients. “I’ve seen enough big law firms take really dodgy clients, do really nasty stuff on behalf of those clients on a regular basis that you can’t make that generalisation.

“You can say there’s some lawyers who won’t take bad clients and some law firms that might ask tough questions, but they can’t generalise because there’s a lot that don’t.”

Mr Browder also argued that defendants in SLAPPs should be able to recover 100% of their costs; in one of his cases, he was awarded 65% of his costs and in the other, because of indemnity costs, 85%.

“If somebody brings a case that gets dismissed, whatever it takes to get it dismissed, that should be their risk for bringing a case… If it’s a totally unjust case that should have never been brought, why should I bear any financial liability?”

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