Government moves forward with SLAPPs reforms
Amendments made to the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill
The Ministry of Justice announced amendments to the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill on 13 June, which will provide judges with greater powers to dismiss lawsuits relating to economic crime that are designed to evade scrutiny and stifle freedom of speech. Referred to as Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs), such cases are often used by wealthy individuals and large businesses to silence, intimidate and financially crush their opponents, including investigative journalists and campaigners, into dropping their case.
In order to protect the legal system and journalists from such abusive practices, the government aims to create a new early dismissal process within the court system which will allow SLAPPs about economic crime to be quickly dismissed by judges. The early dismissal mechanism will comprise of two tests: (1) whether the case is a SLAPP as defined by the law and (2) whether the claim has a reasonable chance of success.
According to the government, at least 70 per cent of SLAPPs cases, referenced in a report published in April 2022 by the Foreign Policy Centre, were connected to financial crime and corruption. Commenting on the announcement, President of the Law Society of England and Wales, Lubna Shuja criticises the limitation: “We understand why the government is implementing these measures. However, as only cases related to economic crime are covered, this means that some claimants may still use SLAPPs to stifle scrutiny.”
The law defines the characteristics of SLAPPs relating to economic crime, namely a claim is a ‘SLAPP claim’ if: the claimant’s behaviour in relation to the matters complained of in the claim has, or is intended to have, the effect of restraining the defendant’s exercise of the right to freedom of speech; the information that is or would be disclosed by the exercise of that right has to do with economic crime that disclosure is or would be made for a purpose related to the public interest in combatting economic crime; any of the behaviour of the claimant in relation to the matters complained of in the claim is intended to cause the defendant harassment, alarm or distress, expense, or any other harm or inconvenience beyond that ordinarily encountered in the course of properly conducted litigation.