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Judges may gain new powers to stop SLAPPs. Are they enough?

British judges are to receive new powers to strike out bogus lawsuits designed to silence reporting on economic crime, under proposals announced by the government on Tuesday.

The measures would allow early dismissal for malicious or excessive lawsuits designed to tie up defendants in expensive and time-consuming litigation just for reporting on financial wrongdoing.

Exact details are yet to be released leaving questions around the extent of the protections offered against these legal threats, known as strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs), and the mechanisms for enforcement.

The move, which is yet to be voted on, is intended to limit the spiralling costs entailed in protecting free speech and facing down lawsuits from wealthy claimants seeking to curb critical reporting on their affairs.

“We are stamping out the brazen abuse of our legal system that has allowed wealthy individuals to silence investigators who are trying to expose their wrongdoing,” said Alex Chalk KC, the lord chancellor and justice secretary.

“These measures will protect the values of freedom of speech that underpin our democracy and help better protect reporters who are shining a light on their crimes.”

Free speech campaigners welcomed the measures as a “crucial step” towards preventing abusive legal action, praising the “robust threshold” it introduces for claimants to prove the merit of their lawsuits and the protections offered to defendants on costs.

However, some criticised the limits of offering protection only to economic crime-related SLAPPs, describing the measures as “a stepping stone rather than a final destination”.

“Most of the SLAPPs that have reached public attention in recent years have been related to financial crime and corruption, but any and all public interest speech can be subject to a SLAPP,” said Jessica Ní Mhainín, head of policy and campaigns at Index on Censorship.

“We must ensure that equal protection is afforded to everyone speaking out in the public interest regardless of the subject matter.”

Susan Coughtrie, director of the Foreign Policy Centre, said the move “is only a partial success story”, citing a recent case brought by Russian warlord Yevgeny Prigozhin against British journalist Eliot Higgins. That case was widely considered a SLAPP but would not benefit from the proposed protections.

Higgins was sued after noting Prigozhin’s involvement with the Wagner group, a mercenary force accused of summary executions, rapes and torture in Ukraine and various African nations.

The lawsuit failed, and Prigozhin has since admitted to founding the group.

The move comes after long delays following a government consultation on SLAPPs, which made headlines when two British journalists faced multimillion-pound lawsuits brought by Russian oligarchs and a Kazakh mining conglomerate.

The protections would be limited to matters of economic crime, which a 2022 survey by the Foreign Policy Centre found constituted some 70% of known SLAPPs in in the UK.

The proposed measures aim to undermine London’s long-held reputation as the libel capital of the world.

Defamation lawsuits in London can easily cost more than £1m for each side, and the process of English libel law is advantageous to wealthy claimants.

New developments in privacy law and data protection have offered new tools to wealthy persons seeking to silence critical speech on their conduct, with even fewer guardrails than existing libel laws.

The new measures will be put to a vote on June 20.

Security minister Tom Tugendhat said: “For too long corrupt elites have abused our legal system to evade scrutiny and silence their critics. These new measures are a victory for truth and justice, and a blow to those who try and export their corruption to the UK.”

Reporter: Ed Siddons
Enablers editor: Franz Wild
Production: Emily Goddard
Fact checker: Meirion Jones