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UK Government backs bill to end intimidatory SLAPPs lawsuits stifling free speech

Corrupt elites will be prevented from making spurious legal claims to gag journalists and silence critics through a landmark Bill that gained Government support today (23 February).

  • The Bill will prevent corrupt rich from gagging journalists and avoiding scrutiny
  • New law to crack down on SLAPPs moves closer to statute book
  • Judges to gain tough new powers to throw out frivolous claims

Aggressively litigious Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, or SLAPPs, are legal threats brought to intimidate and financially and psychologically exhaust journalists, campaigners and anyone who would criticise or expose corruption.

The Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation Bill, put forward by Wayne David MP, will end this pernicious practice and uphold free speech by allowing independent judges to dismiss spurious claims before they go to trial and protect defendants from paying exorbitant costs.

The Private Members’ Bill builds on the work the Government began in the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Act 2023, which included new laws to stop wealthy elites using SLAPPs on issues around economic crime, including corruption and embezzlement. Under this Act, we became the first country in the world to legislate against SLAPPs at the national level.

Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary, Alex Chalk KC, said:

This Government has already proved its commitment to cracking down on those with deep pockets who abuse our courts, so we thank Wayne David for bringing forward this important legislation.

Free speech and the free press are lynchpins of our democracy, and to muzzle people in this way is chilling. We want people to feel confident standing up to the corrupt, knowing the law is firmly on their side.

Wayne David, MP for Caerphilly, said:

Well-heeled corrupt and malicious elites have been using SLAPPs to intimidate and threaten journalists, community campaigners, academics or anyone challenging them and speaking out in the public interest.

This important Bill seeks to protect freedom of expression for everyone, and I am pleased that it has the support of the main political parties.

The Bill which had its second reading in the House of Commons today has cross-party support, and will update the measures in the 2023 Act to cover a broader scope – blocking SLAPPs across all types of litigation, including sexual harassment, not just economic crime.

It will create a new dismissal mechanism to stop SLAPPs claims as early as possible. Claimants will be required to prove they are likely to succeed before it goes to trial, allowing SLAPPs to be rapidly thrown out by judges and making them less effective as a tool with which to threaten free speech advocates.

A costs protection scheme will be created to protect defendants, like journalists, from claimants, like oligarchs, who deliberately run up exorbitant legal costs. Ordinarily the party which loses the case must pay all the costs, but new rules would mean that the defendant will not have to pay the claimant’s costs, unless directed otherwise by a judge.

Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Lucy Frazer KC said:

Protecting and enhancing press freedom is vital – our democracy depends on the press having the freedom to hold the powerful to account.

We are making it harder for powerful people to stop the publication of investigative journalism through unscrupulous lawsuits and this legislation will enhance that further, ensuring that there are comprehensive powers within UK law to protect journalists from all forms of SLAPPs. I thank Wayne David, who shares the government’s steadfast commitment to preserving press freedom, for introducing a bill to achieve this.

The Government’s endorsement comes in response to a rising tide of this pernicious form of litigation. Some of the most high-profile cases have involved Russian oligarchs and allies of Vladimir Putin. Typically, they employ SLAPPs on bogus defamation and privacy grounds, preventing the publication of information in the public interest.

call for evidence in 2022 and further research since has found the practice is spreading into new crimes, including victims of sexual harassment being silenced by their abusers, and other misconduct such as landlords using heavy-handed tactics to mute tenants suffering in their homes.

Further information

  • SLAPPs legislation will only apply to England and Wales. We are discussing with devolved administrations in Scotland and Northern Ireland the legislative changes we are making.
  • In 2022 the Government launched a Call for Evidence on SLAPPs, which saw 120 responses received: Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs): Government response to call for evidence
  • The conclusion was that SLAPPs are a pernicious form of litigation which seek to silence, intimidate, and harass opponents and have a concerning impact on freedom of speech and on public interest investigation and reporting.
  • The Government committed to introduce new measures to strike out SLAPPs and avoid lengthy SLAPP litigation. This comprised of three parts:
  1. A set of criteria for the courts to determine whether a case should be classified as a SLAPP based on one or more of the common characteristics of such actions.
  2. A merit test leading to early dismissal for those SLAPP cases that fail it.
  3. Costs protection for SLAPP cases that progress.
  • The new measures on SLAPPs relating to economic crime were brought in by Government amendments to the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill in June 2023: Crackdown on criminals silencing critics to be added to Economic Crime Bill

Original source: GOV.UK

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