Ministers to back crackdown on Slapp lawsuits aimed at intimidating critics

Ministers are to support a crackdown on spurious lawsuits aimed at intimidating journalists, academics and campaigners, known as strategic litigation against public participation, or Slapps.

Alex Chalk, the justice secretary, said on Friday that the government would support a private member’s bill brought by the Labour backbencher Wayne David aimed at reducing the use of Slapps in the British courts.

The government said the lawsuits were often used by the very rich to stop the exposure of wrongdoing, with complicated legal cases aimed at financially exhausting defendants.

David’s measures would allow judges to dismiss spurious claims before they went to trial and protect defendants from paying exorbitant costs.

The strategic litigation against public participation (Slapps) bill also aims to remove the threat of intimidation by ensuring there is proper compensation for people who are subject to them.

The government has already brought in new legal protections in relation to economic crime, but David’s bill would widen the scope to “protect freedom of expression for everyone”.

It would create a new dismissal mechanism to stop Slapps claims as early as possible, with claimants required to prove they were likely to succeed before the case was sent to trial.

A costs protection scheme would be created to protect defendants from claimants who deliberately run up exorbitant legal costs. At the moment, the party that loses the case must pay all the costs, but new rules would mean the defendant would not have to pay the claimant’s costs, unless directed otherwise by a judge.

David told MPs on Friday: “Bullying tactics can include huge, threatening litigation costs and damages, and all of the unbearable consequences such as bankruptcy, loss of homes and livelihoods, as well as the emotional distress that entails.

“All of this can cause huge hardship and psychological pressure. Sadly, many people are not able to withstand all of this. So many of the cases are like, if you like, David and Goliath but it’s as if David had no slingshot.”

After the second reading of his bill, he said: “Well-heeled, corrupt and malicious elites have been using Slapps to intimidate and threaten journalists, community campaigners, academics or anyone challenging them and speaking out in the public interest.

“This important bill seeks to protect freedom of expression for everyone, and I am pleased that it has the support of the main political parties.”

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Chalk thanked David for “bringing forward this important legislation”, saying free speech and the free press were “linchpins of our democracy, and to muzzle people in this way is chilling”.

“We want people to feel confident standing up to the corrupt, knowing the law is firmly on their side,” he said.

There have been claims of Russian oligarchs using lawsuits against critics. Roman Abramovich settled a defamation case against HarperCollins and author Catherine Belton after her book Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and then Took on the West included claims he bought Chelsea football club in 2003 at the Russian president’s command, a claim denied by Abramovich’s spokesperson and the club.

David said not all Slapps claims were high-profile. “I’ve also heard stories of patients who have left negative reviews for botched plastic surgeries being issued with Slapp claims by the surgeons; I’ve heard of tenants who have spoken out about their inhabitable housing being issued with Slapp claims by their landlords. This is wrong and this must be stopped.”

Chris Clarkson, a Conservative MP, said: “I want to be able, as an MP, not to rely on the fact that I have immunity in this chamber to be able to go out and talk about what is correct and right and proper and decent, and I cannot do that without fear or favour at the moment because this lawfare system … is basically being used to destroy one of the fundamental principles of our democracy.”

Kevin Brennan, a shadow justice minister, told the Commons his party supported the bill, adding: “It’s a step forward in an ongoing effort to protect freedom of expression and ensure that those who seek to report on wrongdoing can do so without fear of retribution.”