- courts will be given new powers to protect freedom of expression and the rights of journalists
- new three-part test to help spot and eliminate baseless cases faster
- cost caps to protect people from the threat of costly legal battles
Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab today (20 July 2022) presented a package of measures targeting so-called ‘strategic lawsuits against public participation’ (SLAPPs).
This includes a new mechanism for courts to more quickly dismiss baseless claims and a cost cap to prevent the mega-rich, such as Russia’s oligarchs, from using costly litigation as a weapon to silence critics.
SLAPPs typically involve wealthy individuals or large corporations who use the threat of endless legal action and associated costs – sometimes totaling millions of pounds – to muzzle their opponents under defamation and privacy laws. . This tactic is increasingly used to intimidate journalists, authors and activists into limiting or dropping critical stories or books. Most cases never make it to court because the perpetrators often back down under a deluge of aggressive legal letters – many stories recant for fear of financial ruin.
Responses to a government call for evidence released today found it had a chilling effect. Journalists, media organizations and publishers have indicated that they no longer publish information on certain individuals or topics – such as reporting serious wrongdoing or corruption – because of potential legal fees.
Ministers are determined to end this bullying and protect the UK’s free press and will legislate as soon as possible.
Deputy Prime Minister, Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor Dominic Raab said:
We will not let those who fund Putin exploit the legal jurisdiction of the UK to muzzle their critics. So today, I am announcing reforms to uphold freedom of speech, end abuses of our justice system, and stand up for those who bravely shine the light on corruption.
As part of the reforms, a court will apply a new three-part test to determine whether a case should be dismissed immediately or allowed to move forward.
First, it will assess whether the case involves activity in the public interest – for example investigating financial misconduct by a company or individual. Next, he will consider whether there is evidence of abuse of process, for example whether the plaintiff sent a barrage of very aggressive letters on a trivial matter. Finally, he will consider whether the case has sufficient merit – in particular whether it has a realistic prospect of success.
Anyone with a suspected case of SLAPP may ask the court to have them considered for early dismissal.
Crucially, ministers will also introduce a new cost protection regime to level the playing field between wealthy, deep-pocketed plaintiffs and defendants.
The move is intended to protect those fighting lawsuits from crippling costs and allow baseless cases to be properly argued. The government will consult with the Civil Procedure Rules Committee as necessary and will define the design of the scheme and the precise level of cost caps in due course.
Earlier this year the High Court dismissed a libel suit against British journalist, Tom Burgis, brought by a Kazakh mining company over his book ‘Kleptopia: How Dirty Money is Conquering the world’, but often the purpose of SLAPPs is to remove posts without a case ever being brought to court and reported.
Michelle Stanistreet, general secretary of the National Union of Journalists, said:
The NUJ has long campaigned nationally and internationally against the use of defamation laws to crush journalists and journalism.
The publication of these proposals is an important step in the fight against the deployment of SLAPPs and other forms of legislation designed to thwart journalistic investigations. The abuse of the law by the underhanded and the powerful, who deeply resent the legitimate work of the media by holding them to account, is a scourge that must be eradicated.
Free media are essential to the functioning of a democracy. This freedom is severely restricted when those with deep pockets are allowed to use the law to threaten the very future of media organizations.
Dawn Alford, executive director of the Society of Editors, said:
The Company welcomes the government’s announcement of a set of measures to combat SLAPPs. For too long, wealthy and powerful individuals and corporations have been able to weaponize and abuse the legal system to avoid public scrutiny, while journalists, scholars and authors have faced fear and harassment in the performance of their important duties.
The introduction of a new mechanism allowing courts to dismiss baseless cases more quickly and cost caps are key protections that should deter the wealthy from using the threat of costly litigation to silence their critics and should enable journalists and others to fulfill their role as public watchdog without bullying or intimidation.
Meanwhile, the government’s Bill of Rights will further strengthen freedom of the press and freedom of speech. It will introduce a stricter test that courts will have to consider before they can order journalists to disclose their sources.
Today’s announcement follows a new crackdown on misconduct by notaries and lawyers. The Solicitors Regulation Authority will have the power to impose fines of up to £25,000 on offenders, up from £2,000. The regulator will also be able to sanction them for a wider range of breaches – from lower level cases involving inadequate staff training to those with more serious consequences, including failure to implement the appropriate controls necessary to uncover signs of money laundering by customers.
The government has also pledged to deepen the case for reforming defamation laws.
Earlier this year, the Economic Crimes (Transparency and Enforcement) Act was fast-tracked by parliament, which includes increased powers to crack down on corrupt elites and increase pressure on Putin’s regime.
Notes to Editors
- In March, the government launched an urgent call for evidence in response to the growing use of a form of litigation known collectively as SLAPPs – Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation.
- Today he published his response, setting out major reforms to protect the UK legal system from abuse.
- The new early dismissal mechanism requires primary legislation. The government will legislate as soon as possible.
- The proposed cost protection regime can be introduced by means of secondary legislation. The government will consult on the proposals before defining the next steps.
Bill of Rights to strengthen freedom of expression and combat false human rights claims.
Additional powers for regulators to crack down on lawyers who break the rules.
- The Economic Crimes Act was passed by Parliament earlier this year. This allows the government to move more quickly to impose sanctions against oligarchs already designated by our allies, as well as to step up the enforcement of our sanctions.