United Kingdom authorities agreed to take a crucial step in cracking down on affluent elites’ exploitation of the legal system in order to silence investigative journalists and campaigners.
The U.K. government amended the country’s Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill to give judges “greater powers to dismiss lawsuits designed purely to evade scrutiny and stifle freedom of speech,” known as Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation or SLAPPs.
“These legal cases, referred to as SLAPPs, are often aggressively used by wealthy individuals or large businesses to intimidate and financially exhaust opponents, threatening them with extreme costs for defending a claim,” the Ministry of Justice said in a statement Tuesday.
Authorities emphasized that Russian oligarchs have used SLAPPs to suppress opponents such as investigative journalists, writers, and activists in order to evade scrutiny, frequently on false defamation and privacy grounds that restrict the release of information in the public interest.
For instance, Yevgeny Prigozhin, a restaurant and catering mogul known as “Putin’s Chef” and the leader of the notorious Wagner Group of mercenaries, has hired at least four U.K. and U.S. law firms to help him build a strategy to resist EU and U.S. sanctions against him.
According to the statement, the most recent changes to the legislation would establish a new early dismissal mechanism inside the court system, allowing SLAPPs involving economic crime to be quickly dismissed by judges.
“This will make SLAPPs far less effective as a tool with which to threaten journalists and give reporters greater confidence to stand up to the corrupt, knowing the law is firmly on their side,” read the statement.
The government also said that the decision will allow it to quickly conclude the great majority of SLAPPs cases, since at least 70 percent of the instances addressed in a SLAPPs study issued in April 2022 by the Foreign Policy Centre and ARTICLE 19 – a global human rights organization dedicated to defending and promoting freedom of expression and information – were linked to financial crime and corruption.
“These measures will protect the values of freedom of speech that underpin our democracy and help better protect reporters who are shining a light on their crimes,” Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary, Alex Chalk KC [King’s Counsel], said.
He said that for the first time in law, the legislation would identify SLAPPs features pertaining to economic crime.
Despite the fact that SLAPPs legislation would only apply in England and Wales, it will “ensure that journalists can shine a light on unscrupulous individuals who use and abuse our justice system to try and stop them,” according to Justice Minister, Lord Christopher Bellamy KC.
According to CASE – a coalition of non-governmental organizations from across Europe united in recognition of the threat posed to public watchdogs by SLAPPs – 14 SLAPPs were registered in England and Wales in 2021, while a total of 570 SLAPPs cases were reported across Europe in the 10 years prior to 2022.
“For too long corrupt elites have abused our legal system to evade scrutiny and silence their critics. These new measures are a victory for truth and justice, and a blow to those who try to export their corruption to the U.K.,” the U.K. Security Minister, Tom Tugendhat, concluded.
In a similar manner, the EU member states last week reached a “common position on a draft law which will protect journalists and human rights defenders against manifestly unfounded claims or abusive court proceedings.”
The agreement on a common position now allows the European Council, which involves government ministers from all member states, to begin talks with the European Parliament to finalize the bill.
June 16, 2023 Published by The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project.