Ministers have set out plans to cap the costs of libel lawsuits and force claimants to prove “actual malice” in an attempt to deter legal action often used by Russian oligarchs to intimidate journalists and block publication of their links to Vladimir Putin.
The UK government said it would seek legal reforms to discourage so-called strategic lawsuits against public participation (Slapps). Such lawsuits can be pursued by corporations or individuals with deep pockets, with the aim of deterring investigation and scrutiny by threatening years of costly and time-consuming legal action.
Journalists, activists and publishers have described the use of courts for Slapps as “lawfare” when complainants can absorb the costs with ease, regardless of whether they win, but where the legal action stymies those pursuing investigations.
There is no specific definition of a Slapp lawsuit but two high-profile cases in recent months have apparently made ministers determined to act.
The former Financial Times journalist Catherine Belton, the author of Putin’s People, faced five lawsuits from Russian oligarchs and firms, including Roman Abramovich, Mikhail Fridman and Petr Aven. All three have had sanctions placed on them since the Russia-Ukraine conflict began.
Tom Burgis, author of Kleptopia: How Dirty Money Is Conquering the World, was also sued by Kazakh mining group ENRC in a high-profile case thrown out by the high court earlier this month and subsequently dropped.
Belton and Burgis have described the psychological pressure placed on them by the lawsuits, including at a foreign affairs select committee hearing op Woensdag.
In die afgelope weke, journalists who referred to the possible imposition of sanctions on Abramovich, the owner of Chelsea football club, and his alleged connections to Putin have received legal letters warning of the risk of defamation. Last week the UK government hit Abramovich with sanctions.
On Thursday the justice secretary, Dominic Raab, is to set out a consultation that will take evidence on how the government can change English law, as geopenbaar by the Guardian last week. Liz Truss, the foreign secretary, has also underlined the government’s intention to stop the use of the courts by Russian oligarchs to intimidate journalists.
Options under consideration include reform of the Defamation Act 2013 to strengthen the “public interest defence” journalists and campaigners can use as a reason for publishing private information.
Stronger action would include capping the costs that claimants can recover and introducing a specific requirement for claimants to prove “actual malice” by a defendant in libel cases, to deter spurious claims.
The government is also considering changes to let courts throw out claims earlier in proceedings and consider imposing civil restraint orders to prevent individuals bringing repeated legal challenges.
The former cabinet minister David Davis, who has campaigned to curb the use of Slapps, said he believed giving judges the ability to dismiss cases earlier in the process was the right way forward.
“Most US state judges makes public interest ruling early on, before costs can rise exponentially," hy het gesê. “I hope the government can do that. I would like to see an explicit public interest dimension to this.”
Announcing the consultation, Boris Johnson said his experience as a journalist had made him determined to “never allow criticism to be silenced”. Hy het gesê: “For the oligarchs and super-rich who can afford these sky-high costs the threat of legal action has become a new kind of lawfare. We must put a stop to its chilling effect.”
Raab said: “The government will not tolerate Russian oligarchs and other corrupt elites abusing British courts to muzzle those who shine a light on their wrongdoing.”
The National Union of Journalists’ general secretary, Michelle Stanistreet, said it would welcome reform to “ensure journalists and media outlets no longer have to face prohibitive costs and deliberate intimidation by wealthy litigants with the deepest of pockets”. Stephanie Boyce, president of the of Engeland en Wallis, said the use of Slapps has “long been controversial” and it was welcome for the government to “strengthen and clarify the rules”.