LONDON: The UK government announced on Wednesday a proposal that would grant courts in England and Wales the authority to dismiss cases involving so-called Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation (SLAPP).
According to the government website, SLAPPs are lawsuits intended to censor, intimidate, and silence reporters and publishers by burdening them with the cost of a legal defense until they abandon their criticism.
The proposals, which were set out by Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab, include “a new mechanism to allow courts to throw out baseless claims quicker, and a cap on costs to prevent the mega-rich, such as Russian oligarchs, from using expensive litigation as a weapon to silence their critics.”
Courts would be granted new powers designed to protect free speech by employing a three-stage test that would firstly assess whether the case involves journalistic activity that is in the public interest; for example an investigation into financial misconduct by a company or individual. It would then examine whether there is evidence of abuse of process, and finally consider whether the case has any realistic prospect of success.
Anyone targeted by a suspected SLAPP would be able to apply to the court to consider it for early dismissal.
The plans to crack down on SLAPPs were announced in March after the UK government was accused of not doing enough to protect journalists and media organizations from Russian oligarchs close to President Vladimir Putin, who have repeatedly used expensive litigation in UK courts to silence criticisms and discourage investigations into their affairs.
“We won’t let those bankrolling Putin exploit the UK’s legal jurisdiction to muzzle their critics,” Raab said. “So today 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.”
Michelle Stanistreet, general secretary of the National Union of Journalists, said the reforms represent “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.”
Dawn Alford, executive director of the Society of Editors, also welcomed the proposals and said a mechanism that will “allow the courts to throw out meritless cases more quickly and a cap on costs are essential protections that should deter the wealthy from using the threat of expensive litigation to silence their critics, and should allow journalists and others the ability to fulfill their roles as the public’s watchdog without bullying or intimidation.”