Guest Lectures

Who’s slapping whom?

  • 17.00 - 18.00
  • 14 Nov 2023
  • Harvard Style Lecture Theatre, Broadcasting Place, Woodhouse, Leeds, LS2 9EN
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Who’s slapping whom?
Leeds Business School and Leeds Law School are delighted to present Associate Professor Ursula Smartt discussing strategic lawsuits against public participation – or Slapps.

Strategic lawsuits against public participation, known as Slapps, are lawsuits used to suppress public involvement. They are often targeted at individuals like journalists, whistleblowers, activists, and academics who speak up about matters of public interest.

These lawsuits are often initiated by wealthy individuals like Russian billionaires and oligarchs, such as Roman Abramovich. For example, Abramovich sued journalist Catherine Belton over her book "Putin's People" in 2021, where she claimed he bought Chelsea Football Club on Vladimir Putin's orders. Several Russian tycoons, including Abramovich, took legal action against Belton and her publishers, HarperCollins.

The talk will cover how law firms often send aggressive, intimidating or threatening correspondence to individuals and businesses, threatening with an intended course of action, using labels like 'strictly private and confidential' or 'without prejudice'. These intimidating claims and letters are not legally valid.

A group of Members of Parliament (MPs) from different political parties has been pushing for changes in the law since November 2022 to prevent court processes from being misused to silence journalists and whistleblowers in Slapps cases. Conservative MP David Davis is leading this effort. In January 2023, the House of Lords Select Committee on Communications and Digital proposed the establishment of a Slapps defence fund, funded by wrongdoers. They also suggested stronger actions from the solicitor's regulator (SRA), higher fines to deter abusive lawsuits, and increased oversight of law firms using tactics to harass journalists.

The Leeds Business School annual lecture series invites industry experts, leading business figures and entrepreneurs to speak on a range of subjects that affect businesses including leadership, marketing and finance.

Ursula Smartt is Associate Professor of Law at Northeastern University London and holds a research fellowship at the University of Surrey in media and entertainment law. She is Visiting Fellow at Leeds Beckett University.

She has published extensively in international refereed journals in media and entertainment law, on topics such as regulating online harm, internet libel, privacy and freedom of expression, superinjunctions and court reporting. In intellectual property law she focuses on the music industry, such as music sampling and online streaming services. Her successful book publications are standard set texts on law and journalism courses across the UK, namely, Media and Entertainment Law and Media Law for Journalists, now in its 5th edition.

In addition to Ursula’s esteemed academic career as media lawyer she is a highly experienced Criminologist with extensive research expertise in prison policy and practice. She acts as consultant to a number of international prison administrations and ministries of justice, specifically in prisoner labour and correctional industries.

She has advised on penal policy, including the economic aspects of prison industries, introducing real labour models into the prison factories and incentivising outside contractors to manufacture their goods inside prisons, thereby paying prisoners realistic wages and increasing non-monetary incentives. Ursula helped draft the bill which led to the UK Prisoners Earnings Act 1996 (as amended 2011), a Private Members’ Bill successfully introduced by Hartley Booth MP. Her track record in prison consultancies includes the Republic of Moldova; the HM Prison Service (England/ Wales and Scotland); several German ‘Länder’; The Netherlands; Belgium; Italy; Sweden; Czech Republic; Latvia; Hungary; the USA (federal and state); Canada (Ontario); Australia (New South Wales); the Turks & Caicos Islands (UK) and India.

Ursula was awarded a Visiting Professorship at the Max Planck Institute, Freiburg, Germany in 2001 for her comparative research into ‘stalking’ and ‘public fear of crime’. She served for nearly twenty years as magistrate (Justice of the Peace) until 2020 as Presiding Justice in adult and youth criminal courts (West London, Surrey and Sussex) and crown court appeals (Isleworth West London and Guildford Surrey).

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