Debates between Lord Faulks and Lord Thomas of Gresford during the 2019 Parliament

Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill

Debate between Lord Faulks and Lord Thomas of Gresford
Lord Faulks Portrait Lord Faulks (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, we now come a group of amendments about strategic lawsuits against public participation, or SLAPPs. These were much debated at Second Reading and in Grand Committee. As noble Lords will be aware, SLAPPs is the rather ungainly acronym to describe the abusive threats of litigation and actual litigation by deep-pocketed individuals with the intention of preventing journalists or others from revealing the truth, very often about economic crime or, at the very least, economic activity which the claimant would much rather was not revealed at all, or certainly not to the general public. This is a worldwide problem which has received a variable response.

In a sense, there is nothing new about SLAPPs. Powerful men have often used litigation to try to silence their critics, but there have recently been some egregious examples. The difficulty always exists in separating out genuine complaints by powerful men or organisations and those which have been commenced for a collateral purpose. When SLAPPs were debated at Second Reading, it was thought that amendments to prevent or limit such lawsuits would be outside the scope of the Bill. I am glad to say that that has now proved not to be the case, although it is clear that the relevant amendments, either mine or the Government’s, are focused on economic crime as opposed to wider areas of criminal activity which might provoke a strategic lawsuit. The Government’s position at Second Reading appeared to be that they were sympathetic to the notion of legislation in this area. However, they thought that the whole issue needed separate and mature consideration and should not be part of any amendment to this Bill.

I am delighted that the Government have changed their mind and brought forward amendments in this group which we will debate. I understand that the new Lord Chancellor has had much to do with this, and I thank him and the Minister for tabling the amendments.

A number of noble Lords have spoken about SLAPPs, including the noble Lords, Lord Agnew and Lord Cromwell, who gave a graphic description of the mischief at which any change in the law should be directed. My difficulty with any potential amendment was always that the courts have powers already to strike out abusive proceedings, but they tend to be extremely cautious about doing so, on the basis that striking out is a somewhat draconian remedy. Courts tend to be persuaded that it is better to see how the evidence emerges before putting a case out of its misery, but that can be too late. Huge expenditure will have been incurred, often by relatively impecunious defendants. Sometimes they have no realistic alternative but to capitulate—delay is plainly the friend of those who use SLAPPs. The best chance, in my experience, of striking out a claim is when there is a clear point of law, but even then there can be appeals and further expense, which work in favour of an abusive claimant.

The government amendments are clearly aimed in the right direction, but I can already foresee a few difficulties. There will be significant arguments as to what does or does not constitute a SLAPP, for example. That issue of itself has a lot of litigation potential. I am also concerned about the process of making the relevant Civil Procedure Rules. This can be a lengthy process, and is always a carefully considered process. I have studied the recent minutes of the Civil Procedure Rule Committee, so as to inform myself as to how the committee approaches rule changes. I would be grateful if the Minister could explain to the House how this amendment will make its way into the rules and the likely timescale.

Those reservations apart, my view is that we should go further. As pointed out at Second Reading by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, who has put his name to this amendment, there is no obvious reason why there should not be a criminal offence in this area.

I invite the House to consider a client consulting his expensive lawyers. He wants to take every step he can through litigation to suppress and exhaust the funds of those who would expose him. He utters those words which lawyers tend to love: “I don’t mind how much it costs”. The advice that he will or should receive after the government amendments become law is that there is a risk that the courts might decide to stop the litigation if it is regarded as abusive. “But”, the litigant says, correctly, “It will surely still be a lengthy and expensive process before a court even gets to consider that option”. However, if the Government were to accept my amendment, then the advice he should receive is that he risks criminal prosecution if he, without reasonable excuse, threatens litigation with the intent to suppress the publication of any information likely to be relevant to the investigation of an economic crime. This potential offence gives room for a defence, of course, but its very existence should act as a considerable deterrent against the sort of behaviour we want to stop. If this amendment becomes law then the hypothetical client might think much more carefully before threatening or embarking upon abusive litigation.

This amendment is particularly relevant to journalists, who have a huge role in tackling economic crime. I declare my interest as chair of the Independent Press Standards Organisation. It is also of importance to anyone who wants to reveal economic crime. It is entirely consistent with the aims of the Bill. Let us bear in mind that the opportunity to legislate in this space is unlikely to present itself again, or at least not for some time. I beg to move.

Lord Thomas of Gresford Portrait Lord Thomas of Gresford (LD)
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My Lords, I remind your Lordships that, at Second Reading of this Bill, on 8 February, I referred to a legal action brought by Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder of the Wagner Group, who has been somewhat in the news over the last weekend, against the journalist Eliot Higgins, who had investigated his activities. When his case was justly struck out last May, Prigozhin said that he brought court cases against journalists because

“in any issue there should be room for sport”.

The cost to Mr Higgins was in the region of £70,000, although he won his case. That is the sort of abuse of the English legal system that the current crop of so-called reputational lawyers have brought on behalf of Russian oligarchs and many other large co-operations that resent too close a look into their operations.

Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill

Debate between Lord Faulks and Lord Thomas of Gresford
Lord Thomas of Gresford Portrait Lord Thomas of Gresford (LD)
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My Lords, I do not really understand this provision. The purpose is to create a basic offence of strict liability—that is what the Minister and the Explanatory Notes say—but the wording that inserts the basic false statement offence says:

“A person commits an offence if, in purported compliance with a notice … or in purported compliance with a duty imposed… and without reasonable excuse, the person makes a statement that is misleading, false or deceptive in a material particular.”


It is the words “without reasonable excuse” that bother me. I do not see how a strict liability offence can have an excuse. Last week it was well-publicised that someone in the other place said, “Yes, I misled, but I had a reasonable excuse because no one told me. Indeed, I was advised that there was nothing wrong.”

What is meant by a reasonable excuse? How can it be, as put forward, a strict liability offence in circumstances like that? This of course goes to officers who are in default, which is another contradiction within that proposed new paragraph. I ask the Minister to take this proposed new clause back to those advising him and ask whether it is correctly drafted. I do not think it is.

Lord Faulks Portrait Lord Faulks (Non-Afl)
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Further to what the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, has said, the use of the phrase “false statements” rather than “inaccurate statements” is quite significant. A false statement carries with it the connotation of a deliberate inaccuracy, whereas simply getting something wrong is rather different. I agree with him that without reasonable excuse the prosecution would have to prove the absence of a reasonable excuse, which is contrary to the concept of a strict liability offence.