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Strategic Lawsuits against Public Participation

Volume 825: debated on Thursday 1 December 2022


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the use of Strategic Lawsuits against Public Participation (SLAPPs) and their impact on public scrutiny.

My Lords, strategic lawsuits against public participation, or SLAPPs, are an abuse of the legal process designed to close down inquiries and prevent the publication of information in the public interest. It is the Government’s intention to pursue primary legislation for targeted anti-SLAPP reform as soon as parliamentary time allows. We remain committed to upholding our fundamental democratic values of free speech and a free press, ending abuse of the legal systems of the United Kingdom and defending investigations in the public interest.

I thank the Minister for his reply, but I detect a lack of urgency. There is a good reason why these cases are known as intimidation cases. As he said, they are used to stifle public interest investigations by journalists, exposing those involved in corruption, illicit finance and political wrongdoing, aided and abetted by London law firms through forum shopping. This has a clear chilling effect on press freedoms, as Catherine Belton, Tom Burgis or even those working abroad, such as Paul Radu, can testify. Will the Minister take forward with a level of urgency proposals put forward by the anti-SLAPP coalition to allow for claims to be filtered out at an early stage by courts, to put in penalties to deter meritless claims and to provide compensation for those targeted?

In relation to the first two of the ameliorative matters which the noble Baroness identified, I can assure the House that those are within consideration and will be enacted in the forthcoming measure. As to the third matter, although the noble Baroness chides me, I can assure the House that what she styles as a delay is not in fact procrastination but a matter of identifying a suitable legislative vehicle to put these very important matters on to the statute book.

My Lords, the Government claim to prize and to defend free speech, and the Minister has said that the Government’s intention is to introduce primary legislation as soon as parliamentary time allows. The problem is that fear of a costs order does not deter rich organisations and individuals from abusing the court process, with unmeritorious cases brought only to stifle journalists’ criticism of their activities. So what has been holding the Government back from legislating to enable such cases to be stopped in their tracks, and how long will it be before the primary legislation will be introduced?

My Lords, as I said, the delay in this matter, if I may style it in those terms, is not a case of the Government attempting to procrastinate and to kick the matter into the long grass. Rather, it is, as I said in my Answer to the noble Baroness’s Question, a matter of identifying the suitable legislative vehicle into which these measures can be inserted. Were we to proceed to insert this into, for example, the economic crime Bill, which was considered and dismissed, the risk would have been that we would have framed this very serious abuse of process too narrowly. That is why it is important that we legislate appropriately as well as quickly.

My Lords, I declare my interest as chair of the Communications and Digital Committee and refer the House to my recent correspondence with both the Lord Chancellor and the Solicitors Regulation Authority. I welcome my noble friend the Minister’s commitment to bring forward legislation, and I note his recognition of this matter being urgent. None the less, bringing forward any legislation is likely to take time, so what steps are the Government taking now, or could they take, to support those journalists and public bodies who are currently subject to this highly aggressive and costly legal activity, which, as we have already heard, is aided and abetted by solicitors?

My Lords, in answer to my noble friend’s first point, the Solicitors Regulation Authority has already acted—and acted well—by issuing warnings to firms about the practices which characterise SLAPPs. It has instigated a thematic investigation of 20 firms thought to have been participating in this activity. As for the government answer, the Government are intending to bring forward this legislation, which will bring in caps on costs and allow for the rapid dismissal of inappropriate or insubstantial claims to foster a culture of free investigation and free speech.

My Lords, a conference has just taken place here in London about anti-SLAPP legislation. It is absolutely right, as the Minister has said, that the Solicitors Regulation Authority has issued a statement warning firms and solicitors about their support for these sorts of actions. This is about money and power. I ask the Minister whether the abuse of those kinds of injunctions and legislation will also be used to protect women who are bringing allegations against powerful men of sexual abuse in the workplace? The Philip Green case is an example of where the Telegraph was injuncted over five accusations, which were eventually exposed, and he then withdrew his claim against the women. These actions have been used against women too, so will the Government include women, and the abuse of the legal process by the powerful to silence them, in this?

My Lords, it is the privilege of the legal profession to act for the weak against the powerful. On the specific point which the noble Baroness raises, I will write to her. I can assure her and the rest of the House that the provisions against SLAPPs are intended to be drawn widely. She brings forward the important question of whether there is an imbalance against women in the steps being taken in this abusive process. I am grateful to her and will correspond with her.

My Lords, awaiting a suitable legislative vehicle is an ancient excuse—or possibly reason—for not legislating, but, with respect, I am a little sceptical about the Minister’s assertion that inserting these provisions in an economic crime measure would, as it were, narrow them. Putting these provisions in a Bill which is largely about a different subject does not, of itself, narrow them; the key thing is how those provisions themselves are drafted.

The noble Lord is quite correct, and of course I defer to his extensive experience in this area. None the less, I submit that it is of fundamental importance that legislation is brought appropriately and in a manner which is workable. The Government are aware of attempts to bring in anti-SLAPP legislation in other jurisdictions, which have in fact been counterproductive and have served the interests of the people who would use this insidious means of stifling free speech and free investigation. The Government must take steps which work.

My Lords, I do not think that there are many of us who are really buying this defence from the Minister today, but I can confirm that these Benches would be very happy to work with the Government to find the time and the appropriate vehicle to achieve the ends that we all want to see. We are all concerned about transparency and trust in politics. Therefore, will the Minister please inform the House, first, of how many donors to the Conservative Party have made use of strategic lawsuits against public participation, and, secondly, of the total amount donated by these individuals?

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her indication of her preparedness to work on a matter which I think is a concern for the whole House. I am also grateful to her for her ready acknowledgment that these concerns are shared across the entire spectrum of British politics. As to her specific question, I will not comment on individual cases, and nor will noble Lords consider it appropriate for me to do so.

My Lords, I do not think that your Lordships’ House doubts the sincerity of the Minister when he says he wants to get this legislation done, but he knows that there is a big queue of legislation trying to get through both Houses. One way of ensuring this happens quickly and efficiently when the slot comes is to publish a draft Bill, have some pre-legislative scrutiny, and get it in line and agreed before we actually get that slot to legislate.

I take the noble Lord’s point and can tell him that one of the campaigning organisations which has been doing magnificent work in this field has prepared a model law which will be scrutinised not only by the Government but, in due course, by parliamentary draftsmen to see how far that can assist the process of bringing something timeously on to the statute book.