SLAPPs: SRA tightens up on Solicitors
By TIM HICKS
Regular readers of the NYE will know that the NYE has been subjected to an onslaught of restrictive measures by Scarborough Borough Council (SBC) and North Yorkshire Police (NYP) aimed at supressing its investigative journalism.
In the course of this, NYE journalists have been the subject of three Strategic Lawsuits against Public Participation (SLAPP) which have been covered in previous articles.
The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA)
The legal profession has become concerned at the ethical implications for solicitors that become involved in working on SLAPPs for their clients. On 4th March 2022, the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) issued guidance for solicitors which draws a wider definition of SLAPPs:
“This is a term commonly used to describe the misuse of the legal system, and the bringing or threatening of proceedings, in order to discourage public criticism or action. For example, cases in which the underlying intention is to stifle the reporting or the investigation of serious concerns of corruption or money laundering by using improper and abusive litigation tactics.
Features of these cases may include:
- making excessive or meritless claims, aggressive and intimidating threats
- otherwise acting in a way which fails to meet the wider public interest principles”
- making excessive or meritless claims, aggressive and intimidating threats
The SRA guidance is clear that solicitors should not involve themselves in SLAPPs, or act in a way which fails to meet the “wider public interest principles”. Supressing investigative reporting would appear to be contrary to the wider public interest. If this is so, it is therefore unethical and:
“can be evidence of misconduct capable of amounting to a serious breach of our [the legal profession’s] regulatory arrangements”
A number of solicitors have been prominent in actions against NYE journalists and their investigative reporting. It is to be hoped that the possibility of disciplinary action for unethical conduct will deter solicitors from participating in SLAPPs and other actions that are obviously designed to supress investigative reporting, and are therefore contrary to the public interest.
This is highly encouraging, because this issue is not just about SLAPPs.
A wider ongoing campaign of ‘lawfare’ to restrict the NYE’s investigations and reporting
The comments of the NUJ’s General Secretary Michelle Stanistreet are highly relevant to the situation the NYE is facing with SBC and NYP.
“The NUJ warmly welcomes the commitment by the government to tackle the scourge that is the deployment of SLAPPs and other forms of lawfare cynically designed to stymie journalistic investigations and reporting…..”
(My highlighting in bold)
The use and threatd of SLAPPs is part of a wider ongoing campaign of ‘lawfare’ constituting a course of conduct against NYE journalists which continues to this day and has taken many forms.
On 19th May 2022, I notified Chief Constable Winward that I had submitted evidence on the NYP SLAPPs to the MoJ and four days later I received a letter from solicitor Ms Xanthe Tait, of Evolve Legal Services, who provides legal support for NYP. Ms Tait notified me, on behalf of Chief Constable Winward, that NYP would not respond to any of my correspondence in accordance with the Chief Constable’s media policy. Effectively proscribing me.
NYP’s Solicitor XANTHE TAIT
Pursuing a policy of proscribing journalists.
Ms Tait’s letter came out of the blue, with no warning or preamble. Given the timing, I can only conclude that it was in retaliation for me submitting evidence to the Ministry of Justice which was critical of NYP.
Ms Tait is now refusing to respond to correspondence on this matter.
NYE journalists have now been proscribed by SBC, NYP and by the Office of the Police, Fire & Crime Commissioner for North Yorkshire. So far as I am aware, they are the only public bodies in the UK that have adopted this policy.
Proscription gives these public bodies a convenient mechanism to evade their duty to respond to questions the NYE is asking, for instance about the Chief Constable’s expenses.
A few examples.
- On 9thMay 2022 SBC Security Guards acting on the instructions of SBC’s Mayor Councillor Eric Broadbent (pictured above right) and SBC’s (outgoing) Chief Executive Mr Mike Greene tried to eject Mr Ward from the public gallery at Scarborough Spa, where he was observing a Council meeting.
I wrote to Superintendent Andrea Kell the Officer commanding policing in Scarborough and Whitby bringing this to her attention, raising the possibility that criminal offences had been committed and asking her to investigate the incident:
“Incident at Scarborough Spa on the 9th of May 2022
I write on behalf of Community Journalist Mr Nigel Ward concerning a distressing incident in which Scarborough Borough Council (SBC) Security Guards acting on the instructions of SBC’s Mayor Councillor Eric Broadbent and Mr Mike Greene SBC’s Chief Executive tried to eject Mr Ward and his companion, a Mr Strangeway, from the public gallery at Scarborough Spa, where he was observing a Council meeting.
The full facts of this incident so far as they are known to me are recorded in this article published in the North Yorks Enquirer Internet News Magazine.
Mr Ward is seventy-five-years old, in frail health and recovering from long COVID. He was peacefully and lawfully observing a Scarborough Borough Council (SBC) meeting, from the public gallery, when he was approached by two heavily-built Security Guards employed by SBC. It is unclear whether or not they are SIA Registered or were wearing their SIA badges. They told Mr Ward and his companion that they were disturbing the meeting, which was a lie and told him to leave. Both Security Guards were loud and aggressive and one of them continually poked his finger at Mr Ward and his companion. Mr Ward denied disturbing the meeting and refused to leave. Whereupon they [the Security Guards] left.
Deploying Security Guards to evict someone inherently implies the potential use of force, so this was a threatening and unpleasant incident for Mr Ward. I am not a lawyer, but it appears to me that potentially criminal offences of misconduct in public office, common assault, conduct likely to cause a breach of the peace, threatening behaviour and/or harassment may variously have been committed or contemplated/intended by all four individuals.
Be that as it may, Mr Ward does not want to press charges, but would ask that you give advice to all four individuals on the limits of their powers and caution them as to their future conduct. This is to prevent any further distressing incidents or further aggression towards Mr Ward or his companion.”
In accordance with the Chief Constable’s policy of proscribing the NYE, Superintendent Kell did not respond or take any action so far as is known.
This shows that NYP is using its proscription policy to ignore complaints against senior figures (in this case SBC’s Mayor Councillor Eric Broadbent and its Chief Executive Mr Mike Greene). Exactly the same policy NYP adopted with Mayor Peter Jaconelli and Jimmy Savile, who were allowed to continue raping children because Jaconelli was a Councillor and the Mayor of Scarborough.
- Clearly it cannot be right for Councillors and the Chief Executive to use SBC Security Guards as an enforcement organisation for their own personal purposes. So I wrote a similar letter to SBC’s Head of Democratic Services Mrs Lisa Dixonasking:
“Please can I ask you to give advice to all four individuals on the limits of their powers and to caution them as to their future conduct. This is to prevent any further distressing incidents or further aggression towards Mr Ward or his companion. Please can you also confirm the names of the two Security Guards, if they are SIA Registered, if they had body worn cameras and if they were switched on.”
Mrs Dixon also ignored my email.
SBC Director of Democratic Services – Mrs LISA DIXON
A classic SLAPPer who threatened to use a SLAPP to close down a local media outlet,
because it had criticised SBC Councillors – then tried to deceive the BBC to conceal her actiions.
The policy of proscribing NYE journalists issued by Ms Tait and Mrs Dixon is being used by both SBC and NYP to prevent journalistic investigations and reporting of issues that the public have a right to know about, but which the Police and Council would prefer went unreported. These issues involve variously allegations of crime, misconduct, abuse of authority and corruption, against SBC employees, its Chief Executive, a Councillor and Police Officers.
The Police must uphold the law without fear or favour and SBC must uphold high standards of conduct by its employees, Officers and Councillors. When they don’t, they are enforcing the law on the rest of us, while ignoring it themselves.
This brings the Police Service, the Council and the legal profession into disrepute and is contrary to the public interest.
Councillor Broadbent, Mr Greene, Chief Constable Winward, Superintendent Kell, Police Fire & Crime Commissioner Metcalfe and solicitors Ms Tait, Ms Wintermeyer, Mr Simon Dennis and Mrs Dixon were all provided with a draft copy of this article and given the opportunity to comment.
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