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27 January 2022

MPs Call For Action Against SLAPPs

MPs urged Government last week to “end the cancer” of high-end law firms using the legal system to intimidate journalists and prevent them from publishing their investigations. 

David Davis argued in the House of Commons that “these people use our justice system to threaten, intimidate and put the fear of God into British journalists, citizens, officials and media organisations. What results is injustice, intimidation, suppression of free speech, the crushing of a free press, bullying and bankruptcy.

“This is lawfare—lawfare against British freedom of speech, lawfare against the freedom of the press, and lawfare against justice for our citizens. Lawfare is the misuse of legal systems and principles by extraordinarily rich individuals and organisations to destroy their critics and opponents.

“In many cases, our reporters face reputational and financial ruin in defending themselves from these malevolent cases; even if they win, the expense and impact are huge. The chilling effect on a free press is extraordinary.

“Some newspapers hesitate to cover certain topics, such as the influence of Russian oligarchs, for fear of costly litigation. In at least one case I know, the publication avoids the subject outright.”

Former Labour cabinet minister Liam Byrne also called for reforms, including providing judges the power to “rapidly dismiss” a case if it was designated as a SLAPP, a sanctions regime against vexatious litigants and a defamation defence fund. He urged legal regulators “to pass new rules to ensure these firms follow a good model of litigation principles that ensures rules of good conduct and even liability for clients who refuse to pay their bills when they lose their case.

“Democracy’s watchdogs are having their tongues cut out and our writers are having their writing fingers broken. The result is that suspicion multiplies and the risk of corruption grows.

“I want newspapers and investigators to be able to hunt down the truth and, where necessary, publish it.”

Conservative MP Bob Seely also called for the Government and regulators to look closely at these law firms and how they use the legal system. He said: “If we allow the cancer of the selling of intimidation services by high-end legal firms, it will not do us any good in the long run, just as in the long run letting mafias launder money would also be bad for us.

“I will argue for significant reform of this corrupting cottage industry, which enriches the few at the expense of the whole.

“The lawyers who do this sort of work should, to put it bluntly, be deeply ashamed of what they do, because they destroy the integrity of the UK legal system, not uphold it. They charge double or triple, but it is a moral abuse of the law, and they know it.

“As well as anti-SLAPP legislation, “we need to go after those lawyers—dare I call them slappers—who use such tactics.”

Labour MP Andy Slaughter also went on to say: “As we have heard, they are pursuing journalists rather than newspapers, which gives a clue to their motivation. Why sue an impecunious writer rather than a media group? Because intimidation is more important than damages.

“Similarly, by bringing multiple proceedings the claimant seeks to overwhelm the defendant. SLAPPs are not a tool to set the record straight or to protect a previously unblemished reputation; they are a tool to silence public participation, to bully and to halt public criticism.”

Richard Thomson, an SNP MP, urged the Government to act against SLAPPS: “The issue requires much more than what each of us has been able to say this afternoon. It requires much more than a Backbench Business debate. It requires the Government to act, and it requires them to do so in way that sets aside all private interests.”

James Cartlidge, the parliamentary under-secretary of state for justice, said: “I recognise the strength of feeling in the House today, given the importance of the principles at play. In the light of the evidence provided in today’s debate, I will be giving SLAPPs in UK courts urgent consideration”.

He also announced that the UK would be a member of the Council of Europe’s inaugural working group on SLAPPs, with the aim to deliver an anti-SLAPP draft recommendation for member states by December 2023.

In recent years, Index on Censorship have launched an interactive SLAPP tool, allowing individuals to determine if they are facing a SLAPP case. The Coalition Against SLAPPs in Europe (CASE) have also launched a petition for an EU anti-SLAPP law.

In their report on SLAPPs, News Media Europe concluded that newsrooms are either the direct targets of SLAPPs or are forced to undertake legal costs and representation of behalf of employed or freelance journalists, with investigative journalism under attack more frequently than any other form of journalism.

The NME also warned that SLAPP suits are often draining on press publisher’s time and financial resources, putting the jobs of many journalists and public access to high-quality journalism at risk.

The NME recommended that early dismissals be made possible for SLAPP cases, preventing news media organisations from covering high legal costs, as well as introducing stricter budget rules and greater case management for admissible cases, with the defendant recovering their legal fees in full if they were to win.