Law firms’ legal gangsterism silences free speech, says MP
By Amy Gibbons
EXPENSIVE law firms are threatening free speech, an MP has warned, as he proposed £1million punishments for those using legal “gangster ” tactics to silence critics. Bob Seely, Conservative MP for the Isle of Wight, has tabled proposals to tackle the use of “noxious” lawsuits by “bad actors” to intimidate the likes of journalists and campaigners. Firms engaging in strategic lawsuits against public participation (Slapps), utilised by the “enemies of law-governed states”, are offering a “one-stop shop to spy, to snoop, to smear and to sue”, he said. Mr Seely said the legal industry is “justifiably a prized part of London and our soft power” but he also claimed the “Slapps culture” undermines that “great tradition”. He suggested lawyers who engage in these “appalling” actions could be hit with a million-pound penalty to quickly “send this industry packing”. “In terms of our free media, freedom of speech, these high-priced law firms – through naivety, poor judgment or simple greed – are becoming a fifth column,” he said. Slapps usually involve wealthy elites using legal action to try to stop journalists or campaigners from exposing wrongdoing under defamation and privacy laws. The Government announced proposed reforms in July 2022 to give the courts new powers to throw out meritless claims quicker and put a cap on costs, although they have to yet to make progress in Parliament. Mr Seely introduced his own proposals via his Defamation, Privacy, Freedom of Expression, Data Protection, Legal Services and Private Investigators Bill in the Commons yesterday. “Firms who offer Slapps have made themselves wealthy, effectively attacking a free media, freedom of speech and legitimate corporate due diligence,” he told MPS. “I think this, as a business model, is a form of legalised intimidation – effectively legal gangsterism.” Mr Seely warned the Government itself is being “cowed” by the use of Slapps. He said investigators including the Serious Fraud Office and National Crime Agency were sometimes threatened with judicial review.