NUJ supports Lords committee's improvements to SLAPPs Bill to ensure journalists are protected

  • 14 May 2024

Baroness Stowell warns Lord Chancellor of "significant risk"

The NUJ has backed a call from House of Lords communications and digital committee chair Baroness Stowell for improvements to the Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation Bill to ensure it prevents powerful individuals from silencing critics through ‘lawfare’.

Whilst the committee said it welcomed the government’s work on the National Action Plan for the Safety of Journalists and the SLAPPs Taskforce and praised the work of Wayne David MP on his Private Members Bill, it said there is a "significant risk" that in its current form the bill could undermine protections against SLAPPs.

Stowell has written to the Lord Chancellor Alex Chalk MP setting out improvements that should be made, particularly with regard to fining law firms, threatening legal behaviour and the harassment and intimidation of journalists.

She explained: “The Government has a good story to tell on its efforts to stop SLAPPs and we welcome its recent progress. It is right to support Wayne David’s Private Members Bill to prevent the rich and powerful from silencing critics through the abuse of our legal system.

"But it is absolutely vital to get the detail right. More changes are needed to ensure the bill achieves its objective of protecting journalists and whistle blowers.

“In my letter today I have set out some clear steps to do just that. This includes ensuring the idea of causing harassment and distress is not unintentionally endorsed by the bill, addressing pre-action threatening behaviour by law firms, and giving the regulator consistent fining powers.

Stowell added: “On the topic of fines – I struggle to understand why the fining limit for ‘traditional’ law firms (and it’s these who are generally accused of SLAPPs) is £25,000 – whereas for newer types of law firms it’s £250 million. Keeping the fining limit 10,000 times lower for some of the worst offenders is hardly much of a deterrent.

“Beyond the bill, there is still much work to do. We need to see concerted action from the regulator to hold law firms to account. We need to prevent solicitors from accepting laundered money or proceeds of crime to fund SLAPP cases. And we need to remove the regulatory impunity of lawyers to hire unscrupulous PR firms to intimidate journalists.”

The committee also called for action on “outsourcing abusive practices”, saying that “some of the most concerning practises used against journalists by law firms are outsourced to PR firms or private investigators and are outside the investigatory powers of the SRA [Solicitors Regulation Authority]”. 

In addition the committee is: suggesting changes to the law to stop solicitors from accepting illicit finance to fund SLAPPs claims; highlighting concerns around transnational repression by foreign states; calling for more action to help journalists facing security threats and personal intimidation; and recommending a ‘SLAPPs defence fund’ to support journalists with early-stage legal advice.

Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary, said the union supports the suggested improvements, “especially in relation to the vital need to get the detail right and to ensure this bill is not a missed opportunity.

She also welcomed "flagging the importance of a fund to support journalists - not least given the number of freelances who are individually targeted by those who seek to stymie journalistic scrutiny and investigations.”

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