The International Press Institute (IPI) today welcomes the announcement by the UK government of planned legislative reforms which will help protect public interest reporting and defend journalists from strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs).
IPI and its global network recognize this initiative as an important step forward in the development of a legal framework which shields watchdog journalism from vexatious litigation and addresses the abuse of the UK legal system by powerful individuals and corporations.
However, IPI also urges the government to ensure the legislative proposals under development by the Ministry of Justice are implemented swiftly, create additional deterrents for those bringing SLAPP lawsuits, and fully take into consideration the recommendations of media and civil society experts.
The reform package was set out on July 20 by UK Deputy Prime Minister and Secretary of State for Justice Dominic Raab, who said SLAPPs were being used by powerful elites – including Russian oligarchs – to intimidate journalists and muzzle public interest speech.
Under the proposals, courts in England and Wales would be given new powers to quickly assess and dismiss lawsuits adjudged to be SLAPPs – a form of legal harassment pursued by law firms on behalf of powerful individuals or corporations who seek to avoid public scrutiny.
Such cases would be subject to a three-part test. The court would first decide if the lawsuit is against public interest journalistic activity, such as investigative reporting on financial crime or corruption. It would then assess if there was evidence that the claimant was abusing the legal process, such as by sending multiple threatening or aggressive letters. Thirdly, the court would consider whether the lawsuit had any realistic prospect of success.
Defendants including journalsits, publishers and media outlets who suspect a defamation or privacy qualifies as a SLAPP could apply to a court to have it considered for early dismissal. Crucially, the legislation would also apply a cap on legal costs to “level the playing field” and prevent super-rich oligarchs and businesspeople from intimidating journalists with the prospect of expensive and lengthy trials.
“Today’s announcement of planned anti-SLAPP legislation is a welcome signal that the UK government intends to take steps to protect public interest journalism and defend the freedom of the press”, said IPI Deputy Director Scott Griffen. “For too long, London has held the unwelcome title of the libel capital of the world. If implemented properly, this legislation should have a major impact on that situation by ending the weaponization of the legal system to muzzle watchdog journalism.
“The establishment of an early dismissal mechanism for meritless cases and a cap on crippling costs are both vital and welcome safeguards. As a matter of priority, moving forward the UK government must also create a deterrent against SLAPPs by introducing punitive damages for those who bring vexatious cases against public interest speech. IPI will continue to track the legal reform process and hopes to see this legislation implemented swiftly.”
The announcement follows an urgent call for evidence launched by the UK government in March 2022 to gather information from stakeholders about the threats posed by SLAPPs.
Under the plans, the new early dismissal mechanism would be introduced with primary legislation “at the earliest opportunity”, while the proposed cost protection scheme would follow with secondary legislation, which can be passed without the need for parliamentary approval.