Strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs) are set to be overhauled in a move welcomed by the Law Society of England and Wales, as the British government seeks to prevent potential abuses of the administration of justice.
SLAPP features include blocking the publication of information that would be in the public interest, abuse of the legal process where the primary objective is to harass, intimidate, and financially and psychologically exhaust an opponent via improper means and non-meritorious claims.
SLAPPs typically involve wealthy individuals or large businesses using the threat of endless legal action and associated costs to muzzle their opponents under defamation and privacy laws.
Taking aim at SLAPPs
Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab yesterday (20 July) set out a package of measures that take aim at so-called SLAPPs.
Courts will be able to dismiss lawsuits seeking to stifle free speech under government reforms to protect the UK legal system from abuse.
Courts are to be given new powers to protect free speech and journalists’ rights, and a new three-part test will be introduced to help spot and strike-out meritless cases more quickly.
There will also be a costs cap to protect people from the threat of expensive legal battles.
A cap on costs will prevent the mega-rich from using expensive litigation as a weapon to silence their critics, the British Ministry of Justice said.
Barrage of legal letters
This tactic is increasingly being used to intimidate journalists, authors, and campaigners into limiting or abandoning critical stories or books. Most cases never make it to court because authors often back down under a barrage of aggressive legal letters – many retract stories in fear of financial ruin.
Responses to a government call for evidence revealed that this is having a chilling effect.
Journalists, media organisations and publishers reported that they no longer publish information on certain individuals or topics – such as exposing serious wrong-doing or corruption – because of potential legal costs.
Protecting the free press
Ministers are determined to put an end to this bullying and to protect Britain’s free press, and will legislate at the earliest opportunity, the government said.
Deputy Prime Minister, Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor Dominic Raab said: “We won’t let those bankrolling Putin exploit the UK’s legal jurisdiction to muzzle their critics. I’m announcing reforms to uphold freedom of speech, end the abuse of our justice system, and defend those who bravely shine a light on corruption.
New three-part test
Under the reforms, a court will apply a new three-part test to determine whether a case should be thrown out immediately or allowed to progress.
First, it will assess whether the case is against activity in the public interest – for example, investigating financial misconduct by a company or individual. Then, it will examine if there is evidence of abuse-of-process, such as whether the claimant has sent a barrage of highly aggressive letters on a trivial matter.
Finally, it will review whether the case has sufficient merit – specifically if it has a realistic prospect of success.
Anyone subjected to a suspected SLAPPs case will be able to apply to the court to have it considered for early dismissal.
Earlier this year, the High Court dismissed a libel claim against the British journalist, Tom Burgis, brought by a Kazakh-owned mining firm for his book Kleptopia: How Dirty Money is Conquering the World.
Michelle Stanistreet (General Secretary of the National Union of Journalists) said: “The NUJ has long been campaigning at national and international level against the use of defamation legislation to crush journalists and journalism.
‘Sly and mighty’
“Publication of these proposals is a significant step in tackling the deployment of SLAPPs and other forms of lawfare designed to stymie journalistic investigations. Abuse of the law by the sly and mighty, who deeply resent the legitimate work of the media in calling them to account, is a scourge which must be eradicated.
“A free media is vital to the functioning of a democracy. That freedom is severely curtailed when those with deep pockets are allowed to use the law to threaten the very future of media organisations.”
“We are pleased to see the government has taken on board some of our recommendations to ensure SLAPPs do not have a chilling effect on freedom of speech or the right to a private life,” said Law Society President I Stephanie Boyce.
“It is good to see that the inequality of arms that often exists between claimant and defendant – where one party has more financial resource than the other – is going to be addressed. Lower costs would benefit both parties.