The European Commission has proposed a new directive aimed at tackling lawsuits known as SLAPPs (strategic lawsuits against public participation).
The commission describes SLAPPs as “a particular form of harassment, used primarily against journalists and human-rights defenders to prevent or penalise speaking up on issues of public interest”.
Justice minister Helen McEntee was last month given Cabinet approval to prepare new defamation legislation, after her department’s review of the Defamation Act 2009 called for a new mechanism to allow a person to apply to court for summary dismissal of defamation proceedings that he or she believes are a SLAPP.
Campaigners against SLAPPs welcomed the commission’s proposals but called for Ireland to move quickly to reform its defamation laws.
The Times quoted Sarah Clarke of Europe and Asia for Article 19 as saying that there were concerns about Dublin becoming a new “libel hub”, particularly post-Brexit.
The proposed EU directive covers SLAPPs in civil matters with cross-border implications, and will enable judges to swiftly dismiss what the commission describes as “manifestly unfounded lawsuits” against journalists and human-rights defenders.
It also establishes several safeguards and remedies, such as compensation for damages, and includes penalties to dissuade people from launching SLAPPs.
The main elements of the proposal are:
- Courts will be able to take an early decision to dismiss the proceedings if a case is manifestly unfounded. In such a situation, the burden of proof will be on the claimant,
- The claimant must bear all the costs – including the defendant's lawyers' fees – if a case is dismissed as abusive,
- The target of a SLAPP will have a right to claim and obtain full compensation for the material and immaterial damage,
- The courts will be able to impose dissuasive penalties on those who bring such cases to the court,
- Member states should refuse recognition of a judgment coming from a non-EU country, against a person domiciled in a member state, if the proceedings would be found to be manifestly unfounded or abusive under the member state's law.
The commission is also adopting a complementary recommendation to encourage member states to align their rules with the proposed EU law for domestic cases and in all proceedings, not only civil matters.
“In a democracy, wealth and power cannot give anyone an advantage over truth,” said Věra Jourová (commissioner responsible for values and transparency, pictured).
“With these measures we are helping to protect those who take risks and speak up when the public interest is at stake – when they report, for example, on allegations of money-laundering and corruption, environmental and climate matters or other issues that are important to us all,” she added.
The Coalition Against SLAPPs in Europe (CASE) welcomed the commission’s initiative, describing it “a crucial first step forward” in the fight against abusive lawsuits.