2 February 2023
The House of Lords Communications and Digital Committee wrote to the Ministry of Justice, HM Treasury and DCMS last week, urging government to tackle the use of SLAPPs (strategic litigation against public participation) by corporations or wealthy individuals to silence, harass or intimidate critics.
Government committed last year to introducing a law that would curb the use of SLAPPs, but they have yet to reveal a timeline for the legislation.
The NMA has urged government to back anti-SLAPP protections to defend press freedom in the UK. Last year a coalition of over 70 leading editors, lawyers, publishers, journalists and press freedom organisations including the NMA, sent a model anti-SLAPP law to Justice Secretary Dominic Raab, outlining how government can deliver on their commitment to stifle SLAPP cases and end the abuse of the UK legal system.
Putting an end to SLAPPs also draws cross party support, with Margaret Hodge, Labour MP, calling on Government to act fast: “Every day that goes by is another opportunity for the criminal and corrupt to exploit our legal system, launder their reputation and muzzle journalists.” Conservative MP David Davis also warned government that time is running out and that it “must move without delay to remove this rot at the heart of our justice system.”
Baroness Stowell, committee chair, said: “The current level of activity to tackle SLAPPs is wholly inadequate. The regulator is not properly equipped with the powers necessary to deter law firms against abusive practices. But it needs to demonstrate greater boldness in holding law firms to account to inspire greater confidence.
“The decent law firms will stand to gain from a strong regulator and should support the Solicitors Regulation Authority in being much more proactive and open in their investigations and penalties.
“Meanwhile the Treasury is apparently helping sanctioned Russian paramilitary owners pursue libel cases against UK journalists. We have called for clarity on how this was allowed to happen and how we can ensure it never happens again.”
Geoffrey Robertson KC has said Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has helped bring to light the need to reform “England’s increasingly draconian libel and privacy laws,” with the invasion of Ukraine showing “the way in which oligarchs, as rich people, have been able to intimidate British journalists and British publishers.”
The Committee have called for: SLAPPs to be included in the National Action Plan for the Safety of Journalists; a defence fund; increasing oversight of the relationship between law firms and ‘black PR’ and private intelligence organisations; as well as greater action from the regulator and increasing their fining powers.
Paul Philip, chief executive of the Solicitors Regulation Authority, also said: “SLAPPs pose a significant threat to the rule of law, free speech and a free press. Solicitors should not be misusing litigation to prevent legitimate scrutiny from journalists, academics and campaigners.”