Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP) lawsuits are often used to intimate critics into silence
© Getty Images / charliepix
The UK government has announced plans to crack down on wealthy individuals and corporations who abuse the British legal system to silence critics through the “threat of endless legal action and associated costs.”
“The ability of a free press to hold the powerful to account is fundamental to our democracy and as a former journalist I am determined we must never allow criticism to be silenced,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Thursday in a statement.
The UK leader claimed that “oligarchs and super rich” have begun using this “new kind of lawfare” in a way that is having a “chilling effect” on free speech by making “spurious claims” to prevent legitimate criticism and prevent the publication of critical stories and books.
“The Government will not tolerate Russian oligarchs and other corrupt elites abusing British courts to muzzle those who shine a light on their wrongdoing,” UK Justice Secretary Dominic Raab said, adding that “We’re taking action to put an end to this bullying and protect our free press.”
Among the measures the government is set to take are amendments to the Defamation Act 2013, strengthening the “public interest defense” to protect people who publish private information for the public good from being sued. Other reforms under consideration include capping the costs that a claimant can recover to limit the ability of wealthy people to use the “high cost of litigation to stifle free speech.”
Critics say that the Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs) are a type of litigation taken by wealthy individuals not with the goal of winning in court, but with the aim of trying to intimidate or financially pressure the target.
The announcement from the UK government comes after British MPs heard that Russia oligarchs had launched an “unprecedented” number of legal challenges against the book ‘Putin’s People’.
Catherine Belton, who wrote the book that claimed to discuss “how the KGB took back Russia and then took on the West,” says she faced multiple claims a year after the work was published. Among the legal challenges, Roman Abramovich, the recently sanctioned owner of Chelsea FC, settled a libel claim against Belton and the book’s publisher over the allegation he bought the club at the behest of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Abramovich denied the information, and, according to the agreement, the book had to be amended to reflect his denial.