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I will stop this blatant abuse of our courts and protect the press


A free press is the beating heart of our democracy, reporting in the public interest to hold the powerful accountable and expose wrongdoing. Without it, freedom of speech withers and dies.

But in recent years, ultra-wealthy individuals and big corporations, including oligarchs with ties to Vladimir Putin and something to hide, have abused the legal process to stranglehold our media. To suppress news coverage and keep allegations of black money and corruption out of the public domain, those guilty of misconduct use phony lawsuits that have come to be known as strategic public participation lawsuits – the so-called “Slapps.”

With their deep pockets, they use trumped-up lawsuits to aggressively hunt down journalists, academics and activists who dare to expose their shady business.

Disguised as real cases under our world-renowned privacy and libel laws, Slapp’s bully critics into silence so plaintiffs can evade scrutiny by targeting those who can’t match their financial firepower – like sharks against minnows.

Faced with endless lawsuits and eye-watering legal fees, journalists and campaigners are pulling the plug on investigations and stories, too afraid to speak out. It leaves corruption hidden and the British public in the dark.

Last year, the government solicited the views of the Slapps victims to hear their first-hand accounts of this abuse of our justice system.

We found that the sinister chilling effect of Slapps is widespread – to the point where some super-rich individuals and multinationals are considered untouchable by the media and campaigners. Our press is prevented from publishing the evidence found and in some cases from even investigating when they suspect misconduct – for fear of the financial consequences.

And these cases are on the rise. The Coalition Against Slapps in Europe (CASE) reports that there were 14 Slapps in 2021, compared to just two in 2020 and 2019 and one in 2018. Across Europe, CASE has identified 538 Slapps in the last decade, with 26 brought in here in the UK.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Many cases never make it to court, as authors often back down under a barrage of aggressive legal letters in the pre-action stages, retracting stories for fear of financial ruin. Journalists and campaigners told us about the toll these bullying tactics have taken on both their finances and their mental health.

And Slapps aren’t just stifling free speech in this country. They are a stain on our free and fair legal system where everyone should be equal under the law. Our courts are to be used in the pursuit of justice – not to serve the ends of the crooked and corrupt people.

As Lord Chancellor and with my responsibility to respect the rule of law, I am determined to put an end to this brutal abuse of our system. As such, later today the government will table amendments to the Economic Crime and Business Transparency Act currently in parliament to give courts the power to strike out lawsuits aimed at gagging press and campaigners exposing financial misdeeds to take.

We will define Slapps in law for the first time so judges can stamp out sham cases and give journalists the confidence to take on the corrupt. Any bogus lawsuit involving allegations of wrongdoing — such as money laundering or corruption — is considered a limp.

And a new early termination mechanism will spare defendants the stress and expense of a lengthy litigation. The court may strike a case if it is identified as a Slapp and if the plaintiff has failed to demonstrate that the case has a realistic chance of success at trial.

If a case does go to court, the judge has the power to order that the defending journalist be protected from the costs incurred by the plaintiff, so that he can participate in the legal proceedings without fear of incurring disastrous costs must pay. This allows genuine claims to continue, but at the same time deters those who inflate costs to cause maximum personal distress to those reporting in the public interest.

Since about 70 percent of these lawsuits involve economic crime charges, our changes will stop most Slapps.

But this is just our opening salvo. We’re also looking at how to tackle Slapps beyond economic crime, as well as the huge costs they impose on the media and campaigners seeking justice.

It is good that anyone who has really tarnished his reputation can defend himself before the law, but I will not allow the corrupt to use their wealth to cover up their misdeeds.

It’s time to end the charade. To those determined to abuse our courts and silence the press to cover up their financial misdeeds, my message is simple: the game is up.

Alex Chalk KC is Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

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