UK government must take urgent action on SLAPPs
The NUJ has signed a letter to Dominic Raab calling for the adoption of an anti-SLAPP law.
A model anti-SLAPP law drafted in consultation with leading media lawyers and industry experts on behalf of the UK Anti-SLAPP Coalition has been sent to Dominic Raab, secretary of state for justice.
Over 70 signatories have urged the UK government to introduce legislation in line with the model anti-SLAPP law, following its commitment in July to bring forward measures that would reform the use of strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs).
SLAPPs are used by the powerful and wealthy to influence and stymie journalists' reporting, and directly threaten public interest journalism.
The NUJ sits on the UK Anti-SLAPP coalition and has actively campaigned to end the use of SLAPPs, including those targeted at freelance journalists who face lengthy court cases and expensive legal bills.
High-profile cases include those targeting Catherine Belton, Tom Burgis, Elliot Higgins, openDemocracy and The Bureau of Investigative Journalism.
The UK anti-SLAPP coalition has outlined that the model law addresses this problem by including important amendments to the Ministry of Justice’s framework, such as a robust filter mechanism that empowers courts to swiftly dispose of SLAPPs; penalties that are sufficient to deter the use of SLAPPs and provide full compensation to those targeted; and protective measures for SLAPP victims including cost protections and other important safeguards.
Letter to Dominic Raab, Deputy Prime Minister and Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice
Adoption of a UK Anti-SLAPP Law
As a group of leading editors, journalists, publishers, lawyers and other experts, we are writing to express our support for the Model UK Anti-SLAPP Law launched this November by the UK Anti-SLAPP Coalition - and to urge you to move swiftly to enshrine these proposals in law.
Events over the past year have shone a light on the use of abusive lawsuits and legal threats to shut down public interest speech. This is a problem that has long been endemic in newsrooms, publishing houses, and civil society organisations. In an age of increasing financial vulnerability in the news industry, it is all too easy for such abusive legal tactics to shut down investigations and block accountability.
We welcome your commitment to bring in reforms to address Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs), as you said on 20 July 2022, in order to “uphold freedom of speech, end the abuse of our justice system, and defend those who bravely shine a light on corruption.” High-profile cases – such as those targeting Catherine Belton, Tom Burgis, Elliot Higgins, and more recently openDemocracy and The Bureau of Investigative Journalism – are just the most visible manifestation of a much broader problem which has affected newspapers across Fleet Street and the wider UK media industry for many years.
The public interest reporting targeted by SLAPPs is vital for the health of democratic societies, including law enforcement’s ability to investigate wrongdoing promptly and effectively. This is of acute importance in the UK, which journalistic investigations have repeatedly shown to be a hub for illicit finance from kleptocratic elites. As of April 2022, the National Crime Agency (NCA) has estimated the scale of money laundering impacting the UK is in excess of £100bn a year.
Journalism has a huge role to play in tackling this problem. For example, investigations by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) into the ‘Azerbaijani Laundromat’ scandal supported the NCA in seizing millions in corrupt funds from a number of individuals, including £5.6 million from members of one Azerbaijani MP’s family. Prior to the NCA’s seizure, the same MP had spent two years pursuing Paul Radu, co-founder of OCCRP through London’s libel courts. The inequality of arms in such cases is clear. As Radu notes: “The people suing journalists in the UK rely on these huge legal bills being so intimidating that the journalists won’t even try to defend themselves.”
In March 2022, at the launch of the government consultation on SLAPPs, you stressed that “The Government will not tolerate Russian oligarchs and other corrupt elites abusing British courts to muzzle those who shine a light on their wrongdoing.” The findings of the consultation, published in July, clearly stated that “the type of activity identified as SLAPPs and the aim of preventing exposure of matters that are in the public interest go beyond the parameters of ordinary litigation and pose a threat to freedom of speech and the freedom of the press.”
Fortunately, there is an oven-ready solution to this problem. The Model Anti-SLAPP Law, drafted by the UK Anti-SLAPP Coalition in consultation with leading media lawyers and industry experts, would provide robust protection against SLAPPs, building on the framework proposed by the Ministry of Justice in July. Key features include:
- A filter mechanism that empowers courts to swiftly dispose of SLAPPs without the need for a subjective enquiry into the state of mind of the SLAPP filer. This mechanism should subject claims that exhibit features of abuse to a higher merits threshold.
- Penalties that are sufficient to deter the use of SLAPPs and provide full compensation to those targeted. Such penalties should take into account the harm caused to the defendant and the conduct of and the resources available to the claimant.
- Protective measures for SLAPP victims including cost protections, safeguards, and measures to reduce the ability of SLAPP claimants to weaponise the litigation process against public watchdogs.
The need could not be more urgent. Research by the Foreign Policy Centre and other members of the UK Anti-SLAPP Coalition has found that SLAPPs are on the rise and that the UK is the number one originator of abusive legal actions.
In fact, the UK has been identified as the leading source of SLAPPs, almost as frequent a source as all European Union countries and the United States combined.
The EU has already taken steps, with a proposed Anti-SLAPP Directive announced in April. In the US, 34 US states already have anti-SLAPPs laws in place, and this year Congress has introduced the first federal SLAPP Protection Act. Moreover, the US has also launched the Defamation Defense Fund, recognising the impact SLAPP actions have on journalists, as they “are designed to deter them from doing their work.”
You have made clear your commitment to strengthening legal protections against these legal tactics. It is crucial momentum is not lost. We encourage you to put forward, in the earliest possible time frame, legislation in line with the model UK Anti-SLAPP Law, to ensure that the UK can keep pace and contribute to this global movement to protect against SLAPPs.