As published in The Daily Telegraph:
The super-wealthy are misusing British courts to bully and silence journalists, cross-party MPs have warned.
Ministers were urged on Thursday to clamp down on foreign oligarchs and domestic multi-millionaires targeting reporters and regulators with lengthy and costly lawsuits.
David Davis, the former Tory Cabinet minister, called for the UK to follow the example set by 31 American states and introduce a ban on rich individuals using “strategic litigation” to curb free speech.
He warned that people with “nefarious intentions” and “exceptionally deep pockets” were using Britain’s legal system to “threaten, intimidate and put the fear of God into British journalists, citizens, officials and media organisations”.
The aim of these “extraordinarily rich individuals and organisations” is to “destroy their critics and opponents”, Mr Davis said.
The result of such “lawfare” meanwhile includes injustice, the suppression of free speech and a free press, and the bullying and bankruptcy of individuals, he added.
Mr Davis raised concerns about reporters facing “reputational and financial ruin” in defending themselves, as he cited a series of recent legal challenges brought against journalists.
He also highlighted the case of a former colleague who he suggested may have to sell their home and spend their life savings to defend themselves against data and defamation legal challenges brought by a multi-millionaire businessman.
Sir Lindsay Hoyle, the Commons Speaker, granted a waiver for certain lawsuits to be cited in the House under the terms of parliamentary privilege, deeming the debate about lawfare to touch on issues of national importance.
Stephen Kinnock, a Labour MP, warned that there was an “army of lawyers doing the dirty work” on behalf of “hostile regimes”, as well as wealthy individuals.
Bob Seely, a Tory MP on the Commons foreign affairs committee, indicated that intimidation campaigns often strayed beyond using law firms to pursue legal avenues to silence critics, and used “purely criminal” methods.
Liam Byrne, a former Labour minister, said: “For nearly a thousand years our courts have been sanctuaries of justice, now they are becoming arenas of silence, places in which the truth is killed.”
Describing the “playbook” of tactics employed by oligarchs and ultra-high net worth figures, he said a pillar of their strategy was to “maximise intimidation, if necessary using covert surveillance”.
He alleged: “At one stage I’ve been told Elizabeth Denham, who was the Information Commissioner [2016-2021]…, was warned by counter-terrorism officers that MI5 had evidence that she was under active, intrusive surveillance ordered by Mr Arron Banks – and so her office had to be swept.”
In response Mr Banks, the Brexit donor and co-founder of the Leave.EU campaign, told The Telegraph: “I’ve heard enough crazy conspiracy theories to last me a lifetime.”
He added: “I’m not really interested in MPs that use parliamentary privilege to land allegations. Say it outside Parliament.”
Not all MPs who spoke in the debate expressed eagerness to reform the law, however.
Sir Bob Neill, a Conservative MP who chairs the Justice Select Committee, urged caution, warning it would be “a very dangerous thing if Parliament ever sought to interfere with the rights… of any lawyer over which clients they do or do not take on”.
He added: “There are many instances where, actually, injustice has been prevented by lawyers taking on an unpopular client and an unpopular course.”