UK introduces first anti-SLAPP law – but critics say it doesn’t go far enough

Judges can throw out claims they deem to be abuses of process in cases involving only economic crime

UK judges have been given new powers to dismiss lawsuits attempting to silence those speaking out about economic crime.

An amendment offering protection against this type of legal action – known as strategic lawsuits against public participation or SLAPPs – was passed in the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Act, which became law last Thursday.

The new legislation has created an early dismissal process for cases involving economic crime. This means a judge can throw out a claim before trial if they deem it to be an abuse of process. It also gives criteria for what exactly defines a SLAPP and provides a cost protection scheme should the case proceed.

The move is aimed at stopping the rich and powerful from using the threat of costly legal action as a means of suppressing public criticism. However, the amendment is limited to cases involving economic crime only.

Susan Coughtrie, the director of the Foreign Policy Centre, said: “To effectively address the issue of SLAPPs, which can be used to shut down scrutiny of any topic in the public interest, a standalone UK anti-SLAPP law is the sorely needed, and logical, next step.”

SLAPPs have been used often by oligarchs, kleptocrats and wealthy criminals to evade scrutiny. One notable case involved the journalist Catherine Belton, who faced four separate libel claims after the publication of her book Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took on the West, published in 2020.

The limitation of the amendment to cases covering economic crime only means those reporting on other public-interest matters may not be protected against SLAPPs. For example, the law would not protect survivors of sexual assault from being accused of defamation when they speak about their experiences and name their attackers.

Another instance that would not have been covered is the libel case filed against Eliot Higgins by Yevgeny Prigozhin, who Higgins had named as being involved with the Wagner mercenary group. Prigozhin later admitted to founding the group.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) received about 60 legal letters threatening legal action in response to its reporting last year alone, and spent significant time and resources handling them.

TBIJ is part of the UK Anti-SLAPP Coalition, which has pushed for more protection for journalists.

Reporter: Lucy Nash

Enablers editor: Eleanor Rose
Deputy editor: Chrissie Giles
Editor: Franz Wild

Production editor: Emily Goddard
Fact checker: Alex Hess

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Area:

  • Money

Subject:

  • Oligarchs
  • Justice system
  • UK government
  • Super rich