Judges in England and Wales will be given more powers to strike out cases designed to silence critics of the super-rich under legislation put forward by the British government.
A long-awaited crackdown on so-called strategic lawsuits against public participation (Slapps) — threats of costly lawsuits to harass journalists, publishers and campaigners — becomes law through amendments to an economic crime bill passing through parliament, the government announced on Tuesday.
However, the restrictions only apply to such tactics when they relate to economic crime, leaving deep pocketed individuals and companies leeway to employ them in other instances.
Justice Minister Alex Chalk KC said ministers are “wiping out the brutal abuses of our justice system that have allowed wealthy individuals to silence investigators seeking to expose their misdeeds”.
Free speech advocates have long complained that Russian oligarchs and other wealthy litigants have used the threat of action in the English courts to quell criticism that their opponents face high legal fees, even if the case against them is weak.
Publishers in such circumstances may be persuaded to settle claims that would otherwise be defensible, or to prevent critical coverage from being published in the first place.
The UK government vowed last July to introduce legislation to crack down on the practice, including an early “dismissal procedure” to weed out meritless cases.
Announcing the plans on Tuesday, the Justice Department said the measures were just the “first step” in a wider crackdown on Slapps and that the government would draft further legislation in areas beyond economic crime “when parliamentary time permits”.
Research from the Foreign Policy Center think tank, cited by the MoJ, estimated that “up to 70 percent” of all Slapps involve economic crime.
Under the new framework, judges will be asked to assess whether a case meets a definition of an “economic crime Slapp,” and if so, whether the claim has a “reasonable chance” of succeeding.
The MoJ said the aim was to “put the burden of proof on the complainants to prove that their case is well founded, rather than on the defendant”.
The government also said it would introduce cost caps on Slapp lawsuits to prevent them from being “financially disastrous”. The boundaries are set by a committee of lawyers.