Crackdown on criminals silencing critics to be added to Economic Crime Bill
Judges will be given greater powers to dismiss lawsuits designed purely to evade scrutiny and stifle freedom of speech through government amendments to the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill
- extra protections in law for free speech and investigative journalism
- government tables amendments to Bill to tackle abuse of legal system by the corrupt
- bolsters judges’ powers to throw out baseless claims
These legal cases, referred to as Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs), are often aggressively used by wealthy individuals or large businesses to intimidate and financially exhaust opponents, threatening them with extreme costs for defending a claim.
SLAPPs have been used prominently by Russian oligarchs to silence critics including investigative journalists, writers and campaigners to avoid scrutiny, often on bogus defamation and privacy grounds that prevent the publication of information in the public interest.
The amendments show the government is taking a leading role in cracking down on the abuse of the legal system by wealthy elites. It will create a new early dismissal process within the court system which will allow SLAPPs about economic crime to be rapidly thrown out by judges. This will make SLAPPs far less effective as a tool with which to threaten journalists and give reporters greater confidence to stand up to the corrupt, knowing the law is firmly on their side.
The move will enable the government to bring a swift end to the vast majority of SLAPPs cases, as at least 70% of the cases referenced in an report about SLAPPs, published in April 2022 by the Foreign Policy Centre and ARTICLE 19, were connected to financial crime and corruption.
Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary, Alex Chalk KC, said:
"We are stamping out the brazen abuse of our legal system that has allowed wealthy individuals to silence investigators who are trying to expose their wrongdoing.
"These measures will protect the values of freedom of speech that underpin our democracy and help better protect reporters who are shining a light on their crimes."
Crucially, the legislation will define the characteristics of SLAPPs relating to economic crime in law for the first time. This sets out that legal action taken to restrain a person’s freedom of speech or that the information within the piece has been released in the public interest to combat economic crime will count as a SLAPP.
Should a case reach court the early dismissal mechanism comprising of two tests will come into effect – whether a case is a SLAPP as defined by the Bill, and whether the claim has reasonable chance of being successful. This will put the onus on the complainants to prove that their case has merit, rather than on the defendant.
Justice Minister, Lord Bellamy, said:
"Our reforms will ensure that journalists can shine a light on unscrupulous individuals who use and abuse our justice system to try and stop them.
"As a result of our action it will be easier for the courts to swiftly dismiss cases, reducing the costs and stresses of lengthy legal proceedings."
In 2021 the Coalition Against SLAPPs in Europe estimated that 14 SLAPPs cases were brought in the UK, an increase on the 2 cases in both 2020 and 2019.
As part of the wider package of reforms the government will introduce limits on the high costs associated with SLAPPs to prevent them from being financially ruinous. This will maintain access to justice and ensure defendants have the confidence to take on wealthy claimants.
This amendment is the first step in cracking down on SLAPPs used to limit freedom of speech. The government remains committed to tackling all forms of this nefarious practice and will set out further legislation beyond economic crime when parliamentary time allows.
Security Minister Tom Tugendhat said:
"For too long corrupt elites have abused our legal system to evade scrutiny and silence their critics.
"These new measures are a victory for truth and justice, and a blow to those who try and export their corruption to the UK.
"They will help expose wrongdoing and bring an end to spurious lawsuits from those who seek to suppress our freedom of speech."