Solicitors in UK warned to not act as ‘employed weapons’ to silence critics of super-rich

Legislation companies have been warned by their regulator that they need to not act as “employed weapons” to silence critics of the rich, amid a spate of allegations of abusive litigation by Russian oligarchs for the reason that invasion of Ukraine.

The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), which regulates solicitors in England and Wales, has revealed it’s investigating 40 circumstances of alleged strategic lawsuits in opposition to public participation (Slapps). There are “important considerations being raised about solicitors making meritless claims on behalf of oligarchs to stifle public discourse about corruption or cash laundering”, it mentioned in a report revealed this week.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has heightened scrutiny of the super-rich utilizing litigation to attempt to silence critics and journalists reporting on allegations of corruption. That has in flip elevated scrutiny by MPs and campaigners of British legal professionals who act for rich international shoppers, together with these topic to monetary sanctions from the UK or its allies.

“Solicitors should not merely ‘employed weapons’,” the SRA wrote. “Meaning they need to not convey circumstances which aren’t correctly debatable, convey extreme or oppressive proceedings, or act in a approach which might mislead or reap the benefits of others throughout proceedings.”

The SRA additionally famous that legal professionals have an obligation to report potential Slapps to the regulator. Its evaluation of 25 companies discovered three cases the place legal professionals did not report probably abusive litigation.

One alleged Slapp case being investigating by the SRA is motion by a London-based regulation agency on behalf of Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Russian oligarch who runs the Wagner group, a infamous mercenary military. Wagner has been accused of human rights abuses and murdering civilians in Mali and Central African Republic, and it has taken an more and more necessary function in Vladimir Putin’s conflict in opposition to Ukraine.

The SRA is investigating Discreet Legislation, a agency arrange by the British lawyer Roger Gherson, in relation to a swimsuit introduced by Prigozhin in opposition to Eliot Higgins, a journalist and the founding father of the Bellingcat journalism organisation, which had reported on his hyperlinks to the Wagner group. The case was dismissed by the excessive courtroom in London, and Higgins’s legal professionals later complained to the SRA that this was a Slapp swimsuit. Discreet Legislation stopped representing Prigozhin in March 2022, the Monetary Instances reported.

Discreet Legislation additionally acted in a libel motion for Anar Mahmudov and Nargiz Mahmudova, the youngsters of Eldar Mahmudov, a former Azerbaijani safety minister. They tried to sue a Spanish journalist and 5 Spanish information shops for defamation over “allegations in regards to the origins of the household’s wealth”. A London decide mentioned the courtroom didn’t have jurisdiction to listen to the declare.

Prigozhin is just not the one Russia-linked oligarch below UK sanctions who has been represented by Gherson, who additionally operates the agency Gherson Solicitors, which he based in 1988. Gherson labored with Mikhail Fridman and Petr Aven to problem EU sanctions positioned on them due to the Ukraine conflict.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has additionally prompted elevated scrutiny of different companies on provide from UK-based authorized advisers. British MPs and transparency campaigners have raised considerations about abuse of “golden visa” schemes – which generally permit rich buyers to use for citizenship in return for investments. Within the UK, the federal government’s “golden visa” scheme was focused by folks with suspected legal hyperlinks in addition to 10 Russian oligarchs who have been later subjected to sanctions, a authorities evaluation disclosed final month.

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Gherson can be linked to Discreet Advisory Providers, a Monaco-based firm providing recommendation to abroad shoppers that features “secondary citizenship” companies, which supply very rich shoppers the prospect to use for visas for various international locations. OpenDemocracy first reported the hyperlink to the Monaco firm.

A spokesperson for Discreet Legislation mentioned: “As you’ll recognize, as legal professionals we’re unable to reveal confidential data referring to our former shoppers. It’s public data that Discreet Legislation LLP acted for Mr Prigozhin and our place is that always we complied absolutely with our authorized {and professional} obligations.”

A spokesperson for Gherson Solicitors LLP mentioned: “As legal professionals, we’re unable to reveal confidential details about the authorized companies that we’ve got supplied to our shoppers.”