Society welcomes government action on SLAPPs

Posted on: July 20, 2022 by Claire Meadows

The Society of Editors has welcomed an announcement by the government of a package of measures aimed at tackling Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs).

The measures, outlined by Justice Secretary Dominic Raab today (Wednesday 20 July 2022), will include a new three-part test to help spot and strike out meritless cases more quickly and include a cap on costs to protect journalists and others from the threat of costly legal action. The Society has previously called for such measures to be included in any future legislation.

Frequently linked to investigations into financial crime or wrongdoing, SLAPPs are widely recognised as being used by wealthy individuals and companies, including Russian oligarchs, to silence and intimidate journalists and critics through time-consuming and costly litigation. A public consultation earlier this year on proposals to tackle SLAPPs found that journalists, media organisations and publishers reported no longer publishing information on certain individuals or topics – including exposing serious wrong-doing or corruption – because of the threat of excessive legal costs.

Responding to the announcement Dawn Alford, Executive Director of the Society said: “The Society welcomes the announcement by the government of a package of measures to tackle SLAPPs. For too long wealthy and powerful individuals and corporations have been able to weaponise and abuse the legal system to avoid public scrutiny while journalists, academics and authors have faced fear and harassment when carrying out their important roles. Journalists should not have to think twice about exposing serious wrong-doing or corruption but the threat of crippling legal costs has meant that this is the reality that some news organisations have faced.

“The announcement of a new mechanism to allow the courts to throw out meritless cases more quickly and a cap on costs are essential protections that should go some way to both helping deter the wealthy from abusing legislation in this way and ensuring that public interest stories continue to see the light of day.”

The use of SLAPPs against journalists have been highlighted in recent months by prominent cases involving Financial Times journalists and authors Catherine Belton and Tom Burgis who each separately faced legal action from powerful individuals and organisations alongside the threat of excessive legal costs to defend their reporting.

Under today’s new reforms, courts will be required to apply a new three-part test to determine whether a case should be thrown out immediately or allowed to progress and anyone subject to a suspected SLAPPs case will be able to apply to the court to have it considered for early dismissal. Ministers will also introduce a new costs protection scheme to level the playing field between wealthy claimants with deep pockets and defendants with lesser resources.

Announcing today’s new measures, 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. 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.”