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February 23, 2024

Government backs crackdown on lawsuits used to silence journalists

News Media Association says two "small changes" needed to Bill to protect freedom of speech for all.

By Press Gazette

Proposals to crack down on spurious lawsuits which are used to intimidate journalists, academics and campaigners into silence have been backed by the Government.

Strategic litigation against public participation (SLAPPs) are often used by the rich to try, using defamation and privacy laws, to stop the exposure of wrongdoing.

The new measures will allow independent judges to dismiss spurious claims before they go to trial and protect defendants from paying exorbitant costs.

The Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation Bill also aims to remove the threat of intimidation they bring by ensuring there is proper compensation for people who are subject to them.

SLAPPs can be like ‘David and Goliath but it’s as if David had no slingshot’

While ministers have already begun to tighten the law on SLAPPs related to economic crime, Labour former minister Wayne David said current measures do not go far enough and his Private Member’s Bill seeks to “protect freedom of expression for everyone”.

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David told MPs on Friday: “Bullying tactics can include huge, threatening litigation costs and damages and all of the unbearable consequences such as bankruptcy, loss of homes and livelihoods, as well as the emotional distress that entails.

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“All of this can cause huge hardship and psychological pressure. Sadly, many people are not able to withstand all of this. So many of the cases are like, if you like, David and Goliath but it’s as if David had no slingshot.”

Following the second reading, the Caerphilly MP 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.”

Justice Secretary Alex Chalk 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.”

There have been prominent examples of Russian oligarchs using SLAPPs to silence critics in recent years.

A defamation case by Harper Collins and author Catherine Belton was settled with Roman Abramovich, after her book Putin’s People: How The KGB Took Back Russia And Then Took On The West included claims he purchased Chelsea Football Club in 2003 at the Russian president’s command.

David said not all SLAPP claims are high-profile, adding: “I’ve also heard stories of patients who have left negative reviews for botched plastic surgeries being issued with SLAPP claims by the surgeons, I’ve heard of tenants who have spoken out about their inhabitable housing being issued with SLAPP claims by their landlords.

“This is wrong and this must be stopped.”

Conservative MP Chris Clarkson (Heywood and Middleton) said: “I want to be able, as a Member of Parliament, not to rely on the fact that I have immunity in this chamber to be able to go out and talk about what is correct and right and proper and decent, and I cannot do that without fear or favour at the moment because this lawfare system… is basically being used to destroy one of the fundamental principles of our democracy.”

Labour shadow justice minister Kevin Brennan told the Commons his party supports the Bill, adding: “It’s a step forward in an ongoing effort to protect freedom of expression and ensure that those who seek to report on wrongdoing can do so without fear of retribution.”

Justice minister Mike Freer said: “As we’ve heard, strategic litigation against public participation, or Slapps, is an abuse of our courts and of our laws by corrupt individuals seeking to stifle free speech and a free press.”

He added: “We cannot sit by and allow our media to feel that some people and organisations cannot be subject to scrutiny, just because they have unlimited financial firepower to mobilise aggressive legal tactics.”

The Bill will update the measures in the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Act 2023 (Act) to cover a broader scope and block SLAPPs across all types of litigation, including sexual harassment, not just economic crime.

Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer 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 Bill received an unopposed second reading and will progress for further parliamentary scrutiny.

The News Media Association, which represents the UK’s major publishers, welcomed the aims of the bill but said amendments are needed.

NMA chief executive Owen Meredith said of SLAPPs: “These abhorrent practices must be dismissed promptly and efficiently to safeguard the rights of journalists, activists, campaigners, and whistleblowers from any form of unjustified censorship and intimidation.

“Minister Freer rightly acknowledged that ‘the whole purpose of this Bill is to tackle such behaviour’.

“However, to effectively achieve the Bill’s aims, two simple amendments are required – to replace the complex subject test with a straightforward objective one, based on the identifiable features of abuse; and ensure that these powers do not undermine any existing laws they are seeking to uphold, in particular the public interest test in the Defamation Act.

“These small changes are necessary to ensure the Bill can achieve its purpose and protect freedom of speech for all, not just the rich.”

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