Defendants in so-called SLAPP defamation actions should be supported by a fund collected on a windfall tax on libel firms, MPs heard yesterday during a debate in which parts of the legal profession were described as a cancer on the body politic.
Liam Byrne MP, a Labour former Cabinet minister, was among several MPs to call for urgent action against strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs). Measures should include powers for judges to rapidly dismiss cases designated as SLAPPs, a US-style defence for defaming public figures and a sanctions regime against vexatious litigants as well as a defamation defence fund. ‘I humbly suggest that it should be funded by a windfall tax on the law firms making millions from the misuse of our courts,’ he said.
Byrne was speaking in a debate called by Conservative David Davis MP who condemned wealthy litigants’ use of ’lawfare — lawfare against British freedom of speech, lawfare against the freedom of the press, and lawfare against justice for our citizens’. Four law firms – Carter-Ruck, Mishcon de Reya, Schillings, CMS and Olswang – were cited by name in the debate, which received a waiver from the speaker to mention cases currently sub judice.
Conservative MP Bob Seely also called for a new foreign lobbying law to help identify businesses working for foreign actors. ‘I do not want to get in the way of client confidentiality, but I want to know what these firms are doing working for these oligarchs,’ he said. ‘I want to know how many hours they are billing—I would not mind knowing at what rate as well, to be honest—and what they are doing, as well as which bits of those companies are doing what and why.’
London’s lawfare industry ‘seeks not to strengthen freedom, but to destroy it. It seeks not to defend justice, but to undermine it. It is a growth industry, but in the same way that cancer can be inside a body politic, and it needs to be cut out,’ Seely said.
Fellow Conservative Bob Neill MP, chair of the justice select committee, said he hoped the Ministry of Justice will consider consulting on anti-SLAPP laws. However more immediate practical steps could be taken, including amending the civil procedure rule on summary judgment and making greater use of security for costs. ‘Those are practical things that I have no doubt that the courts would be willing to do and we could ask them to consider.’
Responding for the government, junior justice minister Robert Cartlidge MP urged what he called a ‘balanced’ approach. ‘We must be cautious to respond to SLAPPs in a proportionate way that continues our tradition of balancing individual rights with the public good.’ However he revealed that the UK will be a member of the Council of Europe’s inaugural working group on SLAPPs which will publish draft recommendations for member states next year.