SLAPPs to be slapped down?
But not quite yet
The government is to launch a consultation on protecting free speech. It’s aimed at what are called SLAPPs, which is meant to stand for “strategic lawsuits against public participation”.
An example, according to the government, is a recent claim brought by a Kazakh-owned mining firm against the Financial Times journalist Tom Burgis and the publishers of his book Kleptopia: How Dirty Money is Conquering the World. The case was thrown out by the High Court at a preliminary stage. I interviewed Burgis on this week’s Law in Action and discussed the need for legislation with Catrin Evans QC. You can listen to the programme on BBC Sounds.
One option under consideration by the government is to strengthen the public interest test in section 4 of the Defamation Act 2013. This says, in part:
(1) It is a defence to an action for defamation for the defendant to show that—
(a) the statement complained of was, or formed part of, a statement on a matter of public interest; and
(b )the defendant reasonably believed that publishing the statement complained of was in the public interest.
An announcement this morning from the Ministry of Justice says that
ministers are also considering capping the costs that claimants can recover with the aim of stopping the super-rich, such as Russian oligarchs, from “weaponising” the high cost of litigation to stifle free speech.
Changes could also introduce a specific requirement for claimants to prove actual malice by a defendant in libel cases in order to deter spurious claims…
Other measures would enable courts to throw out claims using these tactics earlier in proceedings and impose civil restraint orders to prevent people from bringing repeated legal challenges.
The justice secretary Dominic Raab added:
The government will not tolerate Russian oligarchs and other corrupt elites abusing British courts to muzzle those who shine a light on their wrongdoing.
We’re taking action to put an end to this bullying and protect our free press.
The proposed changes would require legislation, which could not take effect before 2023. Raab has already announced plans to shift the balance between privacy and free speech as part of the Bill of Rights he hopes to introduce in the coming months.
Update 3.30pm: the government has published what it calls an “urgent call for evidence”. The consultation closes in nine weeks’ time. Asked by his predecessor on Tuesday why he could not shorten the consultation period on his legal aid proposals, Raab said:
given the legal risk that I have been advised on, shortening it from 12 weeks to eight weeks does not seem the right thing to do.
Nine weeks is a curious period to choose. I wonder whether Raab took advice on the risk of judicial review.
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