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Legal experts have called for stronger rules on the tactics media lawyers use to deter reporting on wealthy individuals after reports Baroness Michelle Mone admitted her involvement with a controversial medical equipment company that has been sued by the government.
PPE Medpro was awarded more than £200mn in government contracts for health supplies during the Covid-19 pandemic after a recommendation to ministers by Mone, a lingerie entrepreneur and Conservative peer.
Mone’s husband, Doug Barrowman, made tens of millions of pounds from those contracts, the Financial Times has previously reported.
The government launched legal proceedings in December 2022, claiming breach of contract over the quality of gowns provided by the company. PPE Medpro has denied that the goods provided were faulty.
Over several years, spokespeople and lawyers for Mone denied she had any involvement with the company, as did people representing Barrowman.
Eddie Parladorio, founder of Hanover Bond Law, wrote to the FT in October 2020 stating that Mone knew nothing about the PPE Medpro contracts and had no involvement in the negotiations for that contract.
He said he was instructed that “any attempt to mischaracterise our client’s non-involvement in the relevant contract will be met with immediate legal action”.
Parladorio added that “action is being taken against all publications to date that have already chosen to mischaracterise that position”.
This week, The Guardian reported that a spokesperson for Mone had admitted she was involved in contracts awarded to PPE Medpro.
“She acted as an intermediary/liaison between PPE Medpro and the Cabinet Office/Department of Health and Social Care,” the spokesperson told The Guardian.
“Both Doug Barrowman and his wife, Baroness Mone, made a full written disclosure of their involvement to the Cabinet Office prior to the award of the PPE contracts,” the spokesperson added.
PPE Medpro has not responded to repeated FT requests for comment. Barrowman has previously denied being an investor in PPE Medpro.
The change in Mone’s position has fuelled calls for action to tackle the legal profession’s alleged use of so-called strategic lawsuits against public participation (Slapps).
The approach, employed against journalists to try to intimidate and shut down reporting, has drawn greater scrutiny in recent years particularly in relation to Russian oligarchs in the wake of the war with Ukraine.
The heightened scrutiny of Slapps led to new legislation in the recently passed Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Act.
The new law gives UK judges the power to dismiss libel lawsuits related to alleged economic crime where they deem the claim is a Slapp as defined in section 195 of the statute.
Last month, a newly formed group of media lawyers argued that calls for Slapp reform “lacked a proper evidential basis”, with the media and pressure groups having “grossly exaggerated” the phenomenon.
The Solicitors Regulation Authority last year in guidance described Slapps as “the misuse of the legal system, and the bringing or threatening of proceedings, in order to discourage public criticism or action”.
The SRA later warned lawyers against any inappropriate labelling of correspondence with phrases such as ‘not for publication’ and ‘confidential’ “when the conditions for using those terms are not fulfilled”.
In Parladorio’s 2020 correspondence with the FT, he labelled Mone’s responses to questions about her involvement with PPE Medpro as “private and confidential” and “not for publication”.
Parladorio, who no longer represents Mone, said: “I am bound by rules regarding client confidentiality and privilege and am not authorised to discuss my former client.”
“I can say that my firm follow SRA rules and guidance at all times. In all of the circumstances, my correspondence can in no way be considered a Slapp,” he said.
Jessica Ní Mhainín, co-founder of the UK Anti-Slapp Coalition, said: “The use of aggressive legal letters to try to intimidate journalists into withholding critical coverage, even when it is accurate and in the public interest, is characteristic of Slapp tactics.
“We need to empower journalists to hold power to account for the good of our democracy,” she added.
Richard Moorhead, a professor of law and professional ethics at Exeter university, said the “evidence is building” that Slapp rules need to be expanded beyond only cases relating to alleged economic crime.
Regarding the Mone case, the SRA said: “We are looking into the information we have before deciding on next steps.”