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12 May 2022

Justice Minister Calls for Fightback Against SLAPPs

A Minister has called on the legal profession to help government in its fightback against strategic lawsuits against public participation “to protect both the right of our journalists to expose corruption, and the reputation of our justice system.”

Writing for the Law Society Gazette, Justice Minister James Cartlidge MP (pictured), said the “ripples from SLAPPs spread widely” with a chilling effect on free speech and democratic debate beyond the high-profile cases.  

Mr Cartlidge said: “As a nation, we have always been rightly proud of our long tradition of safeguarding free speech, and of course, of our free press. But an increasing and flagrant abuse of our laws and courts by the ultra-wealthy risks eroding these fundamental liberties.

“Strategic lawsuits against public participation, so-called ‘SLAPPs’, aim squarely at shutting down free speech and democratic debate. Kleptocrats – including oligarchs and allies of Vladimir Putin – are using the law to intimidate journalists, publishers and campaigners who expose their corruption and excess.”

SLAPPS are on the rise, Mr Cartlidge added, with The Coalition Against SLAPPs in Europe estimating  there were 14 cases in the UK last year, a significant increase from just two cases in 2020 and 2019.  

He said: “But the numbers only paint a partial picture. The problem runs far deeper than the high-profile cases we know about. Threats in the pre-action stages usually cause authors, publishers and news outlets to back down before a case ever reaches court, for fear of sky-high legal costs and long, drawn-out litigation.”

Mr Cartlidge said that reforms under consideration include a new definition of SLAPPs, making it easier for courts to throw out claims meeting that definition.

He added: “We are also proposing to strengthen defamation defences, as well as capping costs. And, as most SLAPP cases never make it to court, we also want to hear about their extent and use, so we understand fully their insidious effect.

“Today, I’m asking you to help us in our fightback against these abuses – to protect both the right of our journalists to expose corruption, and the reputation of our justice system.”