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Lawfare perpetrators should pay into journalists’ defence fund, says Tory peer

Tina Stowell said action to crack down on SLAPPs was ‘wholly inadequate’ following revelations by openDemocracy

Ruby Lott-Lavigna
26 January 2023, 6.11pm

Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner group of mercenaries, at a funeral for a Wagner fighter killed in Ukraine


Sipa US / Alamy Stock Photo

People who bring vexatious legal cases to silence reporters should be made to pay into a defence fund for journalists, a Conservative peer has demanded.

Tina Stowell’s intervention comes after revelations by openDemocracy that the Treasury, while under Rishi Sunak’s leadership, allowed the head of a murderous Russian mercenary army to circumvent UK sanctions. Stowell has written to senior ministers Dominic Raab and Michelle Donelan to request better protection for journalists who face so-called ‘strategic litigation against public participation’ lawsuits, or SLAPPs.

On Wednesday, Stowell – who chairs the Lords’ Communications and Digital Committee – suggested the government introduce a SLAPPs defence fund, which would be partly filled either by perpetrators of SLAPP cases or by law firms that receive fines relating to cases.

“We recommend exploring the possibility of a SLAPPs defence fund, similar to that launched in the US in November 2021,” wrote Stowell in a letter seen by openDemocracy. “This could be partially funded by fines levied by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) against perpetrators of SLAPPs cases.

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“Another option might be to enable a court to order a claimant in an unmeritorious SLAPP case to pay a contribution to the SLAPPs defence fund.”

Calling the level of activity to crack down on SLAPPs “wholly inadequate”, Stowell also recommended further increasing the cap on the fines that the SRA can levy against lawyers, which has recently been raised from £2,000 to £25,000.

“This remains so inadequate that we struggle to understand why it was proposed,” wrote Stowell.

Other recommendations include SLAPPs being included in the government’s National Action Plan for the Safety of Journalists; and more research into so-called ‘black PR’ (destroying a competitor’s reputation) and private intelligence agencies.

Stowell also contacted chancellor Jeremy Hunt regarding our revelations that the Treasury allowed Yevgeny Progozhin to bypass UK sanctions in order to pay for a legal case against British journalist Eliot Higgins.

The letter, also sent on Wednesday, demanded to know why this decision took place with allegedly no ministerial oversight.

SLAPPs, like those faced by Higgins, can be financially crippling and time-consuming. They use the threat of legal action to silence, intimidate or harass journalists or activists.

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