The number of law firms being investigated for possible misconduct relating to strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs) has doubled since the summer to 40, the chief executive of the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) revealed yesterday.
Paul Philip told peers on the House of Lords’ communications and digital committee that the SRA would consider warning solicitors about potential links between SLAPPs and money laundering.
Mr Philip said he expected the outcomes of around half the law firm investigations to come through by the middle of this year.
Responding to Baroness Stowell, Conservative chair of the committee, who complained that this was “quite a slow process”, he said investigations could be “quite tricky and complicated” because the SRA might need to get court orders to obtain evidence.
He added that only one of the cases came to the SRA’s attention before the late spring of last year; in November, it reported having 29 cases on its books.
Meanwhile, the SRA would publish the results of its thematic review of a sample of 25 law firms in the context of SLAPPs, all of which offered reputation management as well as legal services, in the next three weeks.
Liberal Democrat peer Lord Foster said the warning notices issued by the SRA on anti-money laundering (AML) were “very specific” as to the activities involved, which were limited to those covered by AML legislation.
Mr Philip replied affirmatively when he asked if the SRA would consider including legal services not currently covered by the legislation, such as advice on SLAPPs, in the next AML warning notice.
He restated the SRA’s case that, despite the increase in its powers to fine law firms and individual solicitors from £2,000 to £25,000 last summer and the forthcoming introduction of unlimited SRA fines for economic crime under the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill, a “much wider fining scheme” was necessary.
Baroness Stowell said she was surprised that the issue of SLAPPs did not “attract the attention” of the SRA until early year, when Parliament became concerned about SLAPPs, and particularly their use by oligarchs, which she described as “the tip of the iceberg”.
Mr Philip replied that the way lawyers handled litigation was a “long-standing issue”, and the regulator had issued guidance in 2015 about inappropriate conduct, including “threatening” correspondence pre-litigation.
Earlier in the session, Susan Coughtrie, co-founder of the UK Anti-SLAPP coalition and director at the Foreign Policy Centre, said she was pleased by the “proactive nature” of the SRA’s response on the issue of SLAPPs, but “the proof is in the pudding”.
Catrin Evans KC, a media specialist at Matrix Chambers, commented on the government’s proposed anti-SLAPP legislation, announced in outline in November last year: “The devil is in the detail and we don’t have the detail.”
Ms Evans said it would not be difficult for the courts to apply the first stage in the planned three-part test for identifying a SLAPP – that the article complained about was in the public interest.
However, it would be much harder to identify features indicating abuse of process.
Ms Evans said the example given by the Ministry of Justice, of a series of “very aggressive letters on a trivial matter” would not work because if the harm was not serious, the complainant would have no claim for defamation.
She said the courts already had powers to dismiss cases which lacked sufficient merit, the third part of the test.