The Law Society of England and Wales is joining forces with media and other legal sector bodies to tackle the rise of Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs) which stifle freedom of the press to report on critical stories.
Often associated with the extremely wealthy, SLAPPs are being used to prevent information being released into the public domain and have been used in the UK by Russian Oligarch whose use of them threatens journalists with extreme costs for defending a claim; often claiming defamation or privacy violations.
A new taskforce will “help drive forward the government’s agenda to make sure appropriate protections exist for journalists tirelessly working to investigate and publish stories in the public interest, holding power to account and supporting our strong democratic tradition.”
The use of SLAPPs has risen in recent years and while exact numbers are difficult to establish because of their secretive nature, data from the Coalition Against SLAPPs in Europe (CASE) estimate there were 14 in England and Wales in 2021, up from two in both 2020 and 2019. There was one case in 2018.
The government has targeted the use of SLAPPs linked to economic crime earlier this year in an amendment to the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill, enabling SLAPPs to be thrown out more quickly and costs capped.
This new taskforce will further explore
- how legal services regulation could be used to prevent or mitigate SLAPPs,
- draw up plans for new specialist training for judges and law professionals to help them identify and throw out SLAPPs more easily,
- and develop guidance to support journalists, publications or law professionals.
Commenting, Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer KC said
“When I became Culture Secretary I vowed to stand up for independent voices and nurture a thriving media landscape which upholds and champions fearless truth telling. SLAPPs have led to journalists having to crowdfund their legal fees and some have even been forced to sell their homes – simply for doing their job.”
“Working together with industry leaders, we will develop strong measures which enhance the freedom of the press to expose wrongdoing without fear of our justice system being abused to silence journalists.”
UK Bureau Director for Reporters Without Borders Fiona O’Brien added
“SLAPPs can have a devastating impact on the journalists involved and their ability to report freely on matters of public interest, so we’re very pleased to see the establishment of a taskforce that recognises them as a serious and pressing threat. This is a welcome step towards ensuring UK journalists are better protected from such abusive and damaging lawsuits.”