Two firms are to face tribunal charges in connection with 'abusive litigation' while the cases of six firms accused of strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs) are currently awaiting a prosecution decision, a senior executive of the Solicitors Regulation Authority revealed yesterday.
Juliet Oliver, executive director, was addressing the UK anti-SLAPPs conference, organised by a coalition of media and free speech groups. The two-day conference heard that, even with the passage of the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Act, SLAPPs remain an issue. 'We still see in large parts of the legal sector complacency and even denial,' said Charlie Holt, council at Greenpeace and chair of the UK anti-SLAPP coalition.
However, defending the SRA's role, Oliver said that, following its thematic review of the issue the regulator is investigating 50 cases relating to SLAPPs at 25 firms and six relating to abusive litigation. She declined to give details of individual cases but said two of the latter category had been referred to the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal. On six SLAPP cases 'we are recommending action', Oliver said.
Meanwhile formal advice had been given in some of the 19 closed investigations, she said, noting: 'We keep a record on file in case the behaviour is repeated.'
Oliver also revealed that the regulator has completed a follow-up thematic review and is updating its warning notice. Emerging themes from the review are that levels of awareness are improving, while warning notices are impacting the way law firms carry out day-to-day work, she said.
Oliver reminded the event that the SRA's powers are 'not contingent on or limited to economic crime'.
At the same event, Sam Townend KC, vice chair of the Bar Council, argued that the SRA's review suggested that SLAPPs are not as prevalent as campaigners fear. The SRA 'found no evidence, which I think is telling'. He urged caution over imposing further restrictions on the bar 'where there is no evidence from case law or elsewhere that the bar has a problem'.
Townend warned of the danger of confusing exagerrated claims with those that are not arguable. 'There's a difference. One side or another always exaggerates their claim. When it's unarguable, that's when there's a need to come in.' While oligarchs as much as people seeking asylum have a right to representation, he said when a case crosses the line into abuse of process 'we would be professionally embarrassed and would have to withdraw.'
Oliver rebutted Townend's claim of lack of evidence from the first 50 case studies.
Charlie Holt, chair of the UK anti-SLAPP coalition, noted that the firms accused of SLAPPs came up 'time and time again'. Yet these were the very firms excluded from the thematic review. 'I'm not surprised there's no evidence.'