A boutique firm which represented a Russian oligarch has been reported to the Solicitors Regulation Authority for allegedly bringing a ‘textbook’ strategic lawsuit against public participation (SLAPP) against the founder of the investigative journalism website Bellingcat.
Discreet Law acted for Yevgeny Prigozhin, who is said to have close links to Vladimir Putin and has been dubbed ‘Putin’s chef’, in a libel claim against Eliot Higgins over tweets he sent from his personal Twitter account with links to articles by CNN and Der Spiegel about Prigozhin.
The firm applied in March to cease acting for Prigozhin – who has been sanctioned by the UK over his ‘close links, including financially, to the private military company Wagner Group’ – at a hearing held in private and no alternative legal representatives were appointed.
Higgins’ solicitors McCue Jury & Partners today announced that Prigozhin’s claim has been struck out by the High Court ‘due to Prigozhin’s repeated failure to comply with simple court orders’.
The firm also said it has reported Discreet Law to the regulator for having ‘acted in a manner that amounts to a clear breach of the SRA code and which has resulted in significant financial hardship to Higgins’. It suggested that the libel claim was ‘designed precisely to cause the maximum personal distress to Higgins and to deter him from publishing further content which legitimately criticises individuals such as Prigozhin’.
The firm said that ‘the proceedings seem to be a textbook example of SLAPP’, which is defined in recent SRA guidance as a ‘misuse of the legal system … in order to discourage public criticism or action’.
‘We respectfully contend that it cannot reasonably be believed, including by Discreet Law when they issued and served the proceedings, that the tweets caused any harm to Prigozhin’s reputation,’ McCue Jury & Partners said in a letter to the SRA. The letter added: ‘By assisting a claimant whose intent seems to be solely to censor independent investigations and stifle legitimate public debate, Discreet Law’s behaviour appears to fall short of the SRA requirements.’
Higgins said in a statement that the case ’is yet another reminder of how the UK legal system is abused by wealthy individuals, both at home and abroad, to stifle legitimate investigative reporting’ .
His solicitor Matthew Jury added: ‘This is a clear defeat for Prigozhin, but it is a hollow victory for our client who should never have been the subject to these abusive and meritless proceedings. The current war in Ukraine highlights the immense importance of the work of organisations like Bellingcat and we cannot continue to allow the UK courts and lawyers to be used to stifle genuine public debate and criticism of those in power.’
Discreet Law has been approached for comment.