MPs demand action from government on SLAPPs pledge

MPs from both major parties have voiced concerns that the government is failing on its pledge to prevent libel lawsuits that enable the rich and powerful to shut down criticism.

The government last year committed to introducing legislation that would crack down on strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs), hugely expensive legal proceedings that allow wealthy figures to stifle public-interest reporting. But its ongoing refusal to commit to a timeline suggests no such law will be passed during the current session of parliament.

“Once again, the government seems to be kicking the can down the road and dragging its feet on vital legislation in the public interest,” said Labour MP Margaret Hodge. “This government endlessly commits to bringing in this legislation, and fails to deliver. Every day that goes by is another opportunity for the criminal and corrupt to exploit our legal system, launder their reputation and muzzle journalists.”

The government’s pledge came in the wake of several high-profile cases involving Russian oligarchs last year and the demand for legislation that protects journalists is a cross-party issue.

“Time is running out,” said Conservative backbencher and former cabinet minister David Davis. “If ministers do not act soon, they will be unable to deliver on their commitment before the election, and many more people will be hit with [these lawsuits]. We must move without delay to remove this rot at the heart of our justice system.”

SLAPPs gained attention again last week after the sacking of former Tory chair and chancellor Nadhim Zahawi, who had previously threatened to sue the tax lawyer Dan Neidle for reporting on his tax affairs, and the revelation that lawyers for Russian warlord Yevgeny Prigozhin had been given licence by the Treasury to sue the founder of investigative outlet Bellingcat.

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The government requested input from the public on possible anti-SLAPPs legislation last March and in July it promised reforms to crack down on corrupt elites who are using UK courts to silence critics. Gareth Johnson, MP and former parliamentary undersecretary of state for justice, repeated the promise last October, saying that the government’s aim is to “ensure that journalists operating in the UK are as safe as possible” and that “we do intend to legislate on the issue”.

Last week, exchequer secretary James Cartlidge said reforms would be made “as soon as parliamentary time allows” but refused to commit to a specific date, saying that “the parliamentary timetable is above my pay grade”.

Susan Coughtrie, co-chair of the UK anti-SLAPP coalition, said that waiting until the next parliamentary session would mean that “the government would have failed on its promise to ‘decisively to stamp out SLAPPs’”.

If no new legislation is introduced to protect journalists against SLAPPs, there remains the chance of an amendment to one of the economic crime bill, the bill of rights or the media bill.

However, the economic crime bill has already passed through the House of Commons, where minister for security Tom Tugendhat refused the inclusion of anti-SLAPP provisions on the basis that the problem concerns freedom of speech.

The bill of rights may soon be thrown out. Joanna Cherry MP, chair of the joint committee on human rights, said last week that “there is such little appetite for these reforms” and “it may be more sensible to scrap the bill in its entirety”.

This leaves the possibility of an amendment to the media bill, though there has been no public indication that such a move is being considered.

“The best option would be to bring forward a standalone bill,” said Coughtrie. “The urgent need for reform is clear.”

By Lucy Nash

Header image: The Houses of Parliament in London. Credit: Alamy.

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