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Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
14:55
Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely (Isle of Wight) (Con)
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I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision about defamation; to make provision about costs awarded in civil cases; to make provision about the application of the rights to privacy and to freedom of expression in civil cases on matters of public interest; to make provision about the regulation of lawyers acting in civil cases; to make provision about data protection; to make provision for the regulation of private investigators; to make provision for the purpose of reducing the use of lawsuits for strategic purposes; and for connected purposes.

The Bill will make it more difficult to introduce legal actions known as strategic lawsuits against public participation, or SLAPPs. I will define them, explain why they are bad and then give some examples. SLAPPs are lawsuits with little legal worth that are designed to silence media, campaign groups or individuals by crippling them financially or wearing them down in endless lawsuits. Firms that offer SLAPPs have made themselves wealthy by effectively attacking a free media, freedom of speech and legitimate corporate due diligence. The wider package around this offer includes not only lawyers but legal support services—a euphemistic term for private eyes, cyber-hackers and PR types—so that these unethical law firms offer a one-stop shop to spy, snoop, smear and sue. As a business model, it is a form of legalised intimidation and, effectively, legal gangsterism.

The SLAPPs business model is the means by which bad actors—organised crime, authoritarian states and their oligarch proxies, and corrupt corporations—intimidate good actors, whether we agree with them or not, including the media, campaigners, think-tanks and publishers. I have been accused of criticising either lawyers or the law, but the opposite is the truth. I think that English common law is one of the great achievements of civilisation. The legal industry is, justifiably, a prized part of London and our soft power, but the SLAPPs culture undermines that great tradition and the good reputation of London.

I will give a few examples, some well-known and some less so. Nuisance lawsuits, or SLAPPS, are brought on three grounds: libel, data privacy and the right to private life. The worst example in recent years, without doubt, is the multiple lawsuits against HarperCollins and Catherine Belton for the bestseller “Putin’s People”. John Kelly of Harbottle & Lewis represented Roman Abramovich. Geraldine Proudler of CMS represented Mikhail Fridman and Petr Aven. Carter-Ruck represented the oil firm Rosneft. Schillings—allegedly one of the pioneers of the SLAPPs business model—sent threats from a now-sanctioned individual, Alisher Usmanov. These noxious lawsuits were almost entirely motivated by the oligarchs’ wish to curry favour with President Vladimir Putin. There has been no clearer case in recent times of the proactive abuse of the law on behalf of a murderous foreign dictator. We know that Olswang—now CMS—also shamefully acted, via an intermediary, for a major Russian organised crime group against Bill Browder.

Less well-known cases include Gubarev v. Orbis. Gubarev, a minigarch, allegedly allowed the Russian intelligence services, the GRU, to use his servers to interfere in the US elections. He was then allegedly ordered again by the GRU to sue. Not only was the law firm involved, McDermott Will & Emery, likely working indirectly for the Russian secret services, but it was caught illegally sharing the trial’s Zoom session with persons unknown in Russia. Unethical, incompetent and illegal—quite an afternoon’s work for an upmarket law firm.

Dmitry Leus intimidated Chatham House into removing his name from a recent kleptocracy report in a case that could have cost half a million pounds. I do not know why Chatham House did not talk to MPs, but it has set a poor precedent in not fighting.

Perhaps the most surreal case is that of Putin’s ally Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the infamous Wagner Group. He planned to sue Bellingcat founder Eliot Higgins over allegations that he was head of the Wagner Group, despite him boasting of being head of the Wagner Group. My advice to Discreet Law, which acted for him, is to find less indiscreet clients if they are going to sue someone for attempting to tell the truth.

Maltese journalist Daphne Galizia faced 47 lawsuits when she was murdered. Mishcon de Reya sought to financially destroy her while others were plotting her death. I find it extraordinary that Mishcon de Reya was not accused of a simple criminal case of harassment against that brave female journalist. Indeed, in all those cases, one wonders at the conniving silence of the Bar Council, the Law Society and the Solicitors Regulation Authority, which seems to spend very little time regulating.

Bad actors have also threatened our Government investigators such as the Serious Fraud Office and the National Crime Agency, sometimes by using the threat of judicial review—our Government are being cowed by SLAPPs. I find all those actions appalling. Against our free media and the freedom of speech, those high-price law firms—through naivety, poor judgment or simple greed—are becoming a fifth column. They are the tools by which the enemies of law-governed states, whether criminals, oligarchs, their fellow travellers or foreign fascists, undermine our society and its values. I wish they would reconsider their behaviour.

The abuse of data protection laws is also being used as a weapon. Specifically, data subject access requests are being fired at journalists and investigators with increasing regularity. DSARs rack up costs and challenge the process, not the truth; the publication does not have to be proven. Above all, they prevent due diligence by UK firms, which allows bad actors into our legal and financial systems.

My Bill will provide a public figure defence on libel and data subject access requests. It will limit the financial and psychological costs that a meritless SLAPP can impose on a defendant and will introduce sanctions against those who abuse our courts. It will dismiss such claims before costs accrue, which will undermine the ability of SLAPPs and lawyers to intimidate. Central to the Bill is an early dismissal mechanism to prevent SLAPPs reaching trial. SLAPPs will be seen as an abuse of the legal process in relation to any public expression on a matter of public interest. Only if a claim is likely to succeed, or where there is public interest, will it proceed, so it must have legal merit. Other measures limit the ability of the claimant to drive up costs, including legal support services.

The Bill will also reform the private investigator world. A recent report by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and The Sunday Times found that cyber hack-for-hire gangs, often instructed by private investigators linked to law firms, targeted businesses, Government officials and journalists. Hon. Members have also been targeted, including me. Other services include bribing witnesses, hunting dissidents and spying on journalists, such as the Financial Times reporter Tom Burgis, who linked the law firm Quinn Emanuel to intimidatory spying practices in testimony to the Foreign Affairs Committee.

Indeed, the Kazakh mining giant, Eurasian Natural Resources Corporation, which has a frankly appalling record, used Taylor Wessing in the UK and Boies Schiller Flexner in the US to go after Burgis. A libel claim was brought in the UK alleging that Burgis’ book “Kleptopia” implied that ENRC was involved in the murder of three people. The case was thrown out, which is a perfect example of a company’s lawyer shooting the company in its reputational foot.

There is hope. In the US, Donald Trump recently had a SLAPP thrown out; he and his lawyers were fined $1 million for even bringing the case—God bless America. If it can happen there, it should happen here. If we fined lawyers engaged in SLAPPs—dare I call them SLAPPers?—£1 million every time they brought in a SLAPP, we would quickly send the industry packing and, God forbid, some of them would have to make an ethical living.

If the Government are not intending to bring in a separate SLAPPs Bill, will they support my work and the work of others to do that? SLAPPs are corrupting. They attack our free press, the freedom of speech and due diligence, and they damage rather than enhance our legal reputation. As with Russian oligarchs, action should have been taken decades ago; we have had 20 years of SLAPPs. The Bill limits legal bullying for the public good, a free media and freedom of speech, and puts justice at the heart of our legal system.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Bob Seely, Mr David Davis, Liam Byrne, Stella Creasy, Sir Iain Duncan Smith, Dame Margaret Hodge, Tim Loughton, Simon Fell, Sir Chris Bryant, Dame Angela Eagle and Graham Stringer present the Bill.

Bob Seely accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 24 March; and to be printed (Bill 232).

Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill (Programme) (No. 2)

Ordered,

That the Order of 13 October 2022 (Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill: Programme) be varied as follows:

(1) Paragraphs (4) and (5) of the Order shall be omitted.

(2) Proceedings on Consideration and Third Reading shall be taken in two days in accordance with the following provisions of this Order.

(3) Proceedings on Consideration—

(a) shall be taken in the order shown in the first column of the following Table, and

(b) shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the times specified in the second column of the Table.

TABLE

Proceedings

Time for conclusion of proceedings

New Clauses and new Schedules relating to Parts 1, 2 and 3; amendments to Parts 1, 2 and 3.

The moment of interruption on the first day.

The moment of interruption on the first day.

One hour before the moment of interruption on the second day.



(4) Proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the moment of interruption on the second day.—(Andrew Stephenson.)