Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation Bill

– in the House of Commons am ar 23 Chwefror 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Second Reading

Photo of Wayne David Wayne David Shadow Minister (Middle East and North Africa) 9:34, 23 Chwefror 2024

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Second time.

I have been a Member of Parliament for nearly 23 years. [Hon. Members: “No!] I know it is difficult to believe for some, but it is true. This is the first occasion on which my name has been drawn in the private Member’s Bill ballot; I am pleased to say my name was drawn fourth. I thought long and hard about the most appropriate and best piece of draft legislation to bring forward. I decided on this Bill, because I genuinely think it is incredibly important, and I will set out to the House why that is.

The Bill tackles strategic litigation against public participation cases, widely known as SLAPPs, in all their forms. Last year, I and the Labour Opposition welcomed the measures enacted in the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Act 2023 that ensured that SLAPPs relating to economic crime can be tackled. I am pleased to bring forward a Bill to expand on that. Reform to protect freedom of speech and the public interest is something that all parties in Parliament hold dear. In all debates in this House and the other place there has been a broad consensus about the need for reform to tackle the pernicious effect of SLAPPs. However, in both Houses it has been clear that the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Act does not go far enough.

SLAPPs have taken and do take many forms. It is vital to bring forward legislation that genuinely tackles the issue in a holistic and rounded sense. There are many examples of SLAPPs. I will refer to a few high-profile cases that have reached court and received some publicity, and to others that have not received that much publicity.

I begin with a case that I am sure hon. Members will be aware of, because it has attracted a great deal of attention. In 2022, a defamation case was reportedly brought against the journalist Tom Burgis, the Financial Times and publishers HarperCollins by a Kazakh mining company. The case concerned a book by Burgis entitled “Kleptopia: How Dirty Money is Conquering the World”.

A defamation case was brought by Roman Abramovich against journalist Catherine Belton and HarperCollins regarding her book “Putin’s People”. It is an excellent book and well worth reading. There was a legal assault on the book through a number of lawsuits in quick succession, justifiably provoking a group of campaigners for free expression to state that London’s courts were becoming the venue of choice for legal action designed to “quash critical journalism”. Catherine Belton, the author of “Putin’s People”, has called for the introduction of reforms to tackle this global industry, based here in London. Hopefully, the Bill will begin to address this significant problem seriously.

Then there is the case of Amersi v. Leslie. A British business owner, Mohamed Amersi, brought a defamation case against Charlotte Leslie, a former Conservative MP and managing director of the Conservative Middle East Council. I am familiar with the case, because I am the shadow Minister for the middle east and north Africa. The case concerned a memo on Amersi’s background and dealings with Russia. It was put together in response to his attempt to become the chair of CMEC. The claim by Amersi was struck out, because he had failed to show how the memo caused serious harm to his reputation.

It is not only high-profile cases that involve SLAPPs. There is the case of Nina Cresswell who named a person who violently sexually assaulted her after her original report was dismissed by the police. She commendably wanted to alert other women who may become victims of sexual assault. The man who was named sued her for defamation. Ms Cresswell won a landmark judgment last year, but the very fact that she had to fight the case at all demonstrates the huge gaps that SLAPP claimants are only too ready to exploit, and we need to address that fact.

I have also heard stories of patients who have left negative reviews for botched plastic surgeries being issued with SLAPP claims by the surgeons. I have heard of tenants who have spoken out about their uninhabitable housing being issued with SLAPP claims by their landlords. That is wrong and it must be stopped.

I have given a few examples of relatively high-profile cases, and also of some that are not so well known. There are many cases that do not attract any attention in court and there are many more that we do not know about because individuals are intimidated before legal proceedings actually commence. The data that the Government have is only the tip of the iceberg. As I have suggested, SLAPPs are extremely pernicious before any action reaches court. Pre-action letters and legal pressure are applied well before proceedings are initiated. This often results in the search or the investigation being withdrawn before publication, or, in some cases, in a whole variety of different areas, the effectiveness of threats and intimidation are such that the cases never see the light of day. Accordingly, that will never be reflected in available data.

Then we come to the press in this country. Let us remember that, as a country that champions freedoms both here and abroad, we must ensure that our free press, which is a real pillar of our democracy, never feels so vulnerable that it self-censors on vital matters in the public interest. No one in the United Kingdom is above the law. Furthermore, no one should be above proper scrutiny on a matter of public interest.

As to the data we have, the provision of figures from the Coalition Against SLAPPs in Europe are deeply concerning in themselves. It estimates that there were 29 SLAPPs in England and Wales in 2022. That is up from 25 in 2021 and 11 in 2020. CASE’s August 2023 report recorded that the total figure in Europe over the past decade was 793.

Photo of Richard Foord Richard Foord Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Defence)

The hon. Member mentions the Coalition Against SLAPPs in Europe. I wonder whether he agrees with the Anti- SLAPP Coalition that the proposed Bill, as drafted, would introduce a subjective test, requiring a court to infer the state of mind and purpose of the filer. Does he agree with me that that would create complexity, costs and delay, which would potentially make the Bill ineffective?

Photo of Wayne David Wayne David Shadow Minister (Middle East and North Africa)

It is an issue that has to be considered carefully, and, indeed, it has been given a great deal of consideration and much debate.

Photo of Chris Clarkson Chris Clarkson Ceidwadwyr, Heywood and Middleton

On that point, will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Photo of Wayne David Wayne David Shadow Minister (Middle East and North Africa)

May I just respond to the other point that has been made? It is vital that this issue is considered properly and deeply. I hope very much that, if we are successful today, the debate will continue into Committee, so that further consideration may be given to that issue. At the moment, I am erring on the side of what is suggested by my private Member’s Bill. I think the Bill strikes a balance. It is not quite accurate to talk about subjectivity and objectivity, because a judge will have to make a determination on the facts that are presented and his knowledge of how the case is being conducted. At the moment I err in favour of saying that there is a false dichotomy, but it is something that should be considered further in Committee.

Photo of Chris Clarkson Chris Clarkson Ceidwadwyr, Heywood and Middleton

I join in concordance with Wayne David. This is an excellent piece of legislation and I am very broadly in support of it. I just wanted to respond to the comment from Richard Foord. Subjectivity is actually a fundamental part of our legal system already: we talk often of the man on the Clapham omnibus. It is the reasonableness test, so I do not think there is anything in the Bill that is out of scope or inappropriate.

Photo of Wayne David Wayne David Shadow Minister (Middle East and North Africa)

I am inclined to agree with that comment, as my Bill suggests, but it is something that needs to have more airing and more consideration. Detailed consideration in Committee would be an appropriate place for that to happen.

As others have said many times, most SLAPP-related activity takes place below the radar before a formal court case and court claim is issued. There are a number of reasons why SLAPPs are so bad, and why SLAPPs claimants are so successful in their warped objective of perpetrating them. Commonly, the comparatively modest means of a defendant are leveraged against them to encourage retraction or the abandonment of the important research that would shine a light on questionable behaviour. Bullying tactics can include huge threatened litigation costs and damages, and all of the unbearable consequences such as bankruptcy and loss of homes and livelihoods, as well as the emotional distress that entails. All of that can cause huge hardship and psychological pressure.

Sadly, many people are not able to withstand all of that. So many of the cases are like David and Goliath, but if David had no slingshot. I should be clear about why the unfairness of a legal system that allows all of that has to be challenged and changed. That is why I am bringing forward the Bill today. We must eradicate the harms caused by that kind of aggressive litigation. We must protect publishers, authors and advocates from spurious claims and empower them to forge ahead with publishing legitimate stories. Grounded, well-researched investigative reporting must be protected, not reined in for fear of colossal legal costs. We must do our utmost to protect and empower ordinary people, and give them the confidence to use the legal system of this country to ensure fairness in the public interest.

Of course, protecting journalists or anyone else cannot be at the expense of denying claimants their rights of access to justice. But at present, the fact that claimants can wrongly exploit the justice system to obfuscate the transparency that is essential in a healthy democracy means that an important balance must be struck. As things stand, that is clearly not the case, and that is why I call for urgent reform today. Robust action to counter SLAPPs in all their forms is needed and it is needed now.

I have sought to work alongside the Government to ensure that the approach underpinning the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Act—which was positively received across civil society, media and the legal professions, including the regulators—remains largely intact in the Bill as it achieves what is necessary. The Bill will therefore keep, for the most part, the definition of a SLAPP claim in the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Act, but it will also broaden the scope and capture all SLAPPs in future. In future, any SLAPPs cases in which speaking out is in the public interest, including for publications on economic crime, will be caught.

Let me address the components of the definition. First, the claimant will have acted to restrain the defendant’s exercise of their right to freedom of speech. Secondly, the exercise of that right will have been in the pursuit of the public interest, or exposing potential wrongdoing or other bad behaviour, such as illegality or untruths, or matters to do with public health and safety or the climate and the environment. Thirdly, the claimant will have misused litigation for its threat to cause harm to the defendant, specifically through harassment, stress or expense, which is beyond that which can be ordinarily expected in properly conducted litigation. The last point includes an important distinction. Legal cases almost always bring a measure of stress and expense to the parties involved, given their serious nature.

As I have said, SLAPP claims are often designed to generate excessive stress and expense in pursuit of a remedy that is a mere fig leaf, or excuse to allow the real harm that the claimant wishes to cause. One thing that distinguishes a SLAPP claim is that the legal action is not pursued for the appropriate remedy, but as a means, in its own right, of bringing oppression to bear. To safeguard against that harm in an effective and proportionate way, including by ensuring that legitimate claims can proceed, the Bill will introduce a new early dismissal test. Claimants will have to show that they are more likely than not to succeed at trial. Where they cannot do so, the case will be struck out.

In addition, much of the harm in SLAPP claims lies in the risk of adverse costs that defendants face. A properly functioning early dismissal mechanism will assist in removing many of the risks to the defendant. However, for SLAPP claims that are not dismissed early, the Bill will introduce a new costs regime that protects defendants from costs that they would usually pay if they lost the case. That will ensure that defendants can defend themselves properly and that the risk of costs does not force them to settle claims unnecessarily. The underpinning principles of that new cost regime are included in the provisions, but the detail will be introduced under the usual cost regime-making powers through rules of court.

Together, those provisions will initially require only new civil procedure rules to give them shape and maximise their effectiveness, as the evidence available shows that SLAPPs are focused on civil proceedings. However, the provisions can be extended by regulations to any other proceedings as necessary, such as the online procedure rules. I trust that the Government will make necessary regulations when claimants who are well resourced and able to exploit any perceived loophole choose other courts in which to pursue SLAPPs. That will also help to ensure that the Bill is future-proofed. SLAPPs are likely to evolve, and we need legal infrastructure to be robust enough to meet future challenges.

As a result of the Bill, the courts will have the necessary tools and guidance to deal swiftly with all SLAPPs, which aim to stifle freedom of speech. Investigative journalists will also be empowered to expose wrongdoing in all its forms, whatever that may be. It is my hope that defendants in such cases will, as a consequence, feel safe from attempts to wrongly exploit our legal system. Journalists and others will be empowered to shine a light on criminal misconduct wherever they find it, whatever form it takes, without fear of spurious claims being made against them.

Unscrupulous individuals or corporations brazenly misuse our courts and legal system to further their agendas, to the detriment of the public interest, though it is wrong to do so as a matter of principle. The public must know about wrongdoing and corruption, so that our democratic society can function and the rule of law can be preserved. This Bill recognises the breadth and depth of SLAPPs; currently, the law focuses solely on economic crime, but SLAPPs can be found in all areas of the law. This all-embracing legislation against SLAPPs is, I believe, a truly significant step in ensuring freedom of speech and removing a clear abuse of our legal system. I therefore urge colleagues across the House to give the Bill their full support.

Photo of Nicola Richards Nicola Richards Ceidwadwyr, West Bromwich East 9:55, 23 Chwefror 2024

We in this House should all be proud of this country’s international reputation for upholding the rule of law. In the current global climate, and following the recent murder of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, that is a freedom that we cannot take for granted. Navalny was an incredibly brave man, and his wife should be an inspiration to us all. Navalny wanted the world to know the truth about what kind of man Putin is, and today, we are helping him in that aim. The protection of our legal system must be a priority for all in this House, ensuring that this country’s reputation continues long into the future. For that reason, I thank Wayne David for bringing this Bill before Parliament today, and I urge all colleagues to support it. We are here because we have to beef up the law to further ensure that we do not allow our legal system to be manipulated and abused by bad-faith actors wishing to shut down freedom of the press and freedom of speech.

In 2021, an investigation by The New York Times found that in four of the six prior years, litigants from Russia and Kazakhstan had been involved in more civil cases in England than any other foreign nationals. Those cases sought orders to freeze the assets of people worldwide. Individuals and corporations—many from countries where the freedoms we enjoy in this country do not exist—use strategic litigation against public participation claims to harass and intimidate journalists and authors out of sharing information that those parties do not want seen or known. The prime example is a case brought by multiple Russian billionaires, including former Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich, who attempted to sue the author and publisher of the book “Putin’s People”. That book delved deep into the relationships between those oligarchs and Russian President Vladimir Putin—a relationship that those individuals cared deeply about when it suited them, but journalists can face legal action for pointing that out.

As has been mentioned, a Kazakh mining company brought a case against another journalist, Tom Burgis, over the contents of a book that he published about illegally gained money in the global economy. Thankfully, that attempt to silence a journalist failed. I have raised the issues surrounding “Putin’s People” before in this Chamber, alongside many colleagues from across the House, including my hon. Friend Bob Seely, whose work on this issue I commend. The point of these lawsuits is to threaten the defendants with colossal legal costs—we are talking about amounts that no normal person can afford—and harass and intimidate them into capitulating. “Putin’s People” author Catherine Belton and her publisher were left with a staggering £1.5 million legal bill following the case brought against them.

Today’s Bill presents us with the opportunity to further prevent such attempted silencing of authors and journalists by Russian billionaires, or any other bad-faith actor. It would put in place new rules, so that claims deemed to be SLAPPs could be dismissed and defendants could be protected from paying the claimant’s legal costs, unless that was justified. The Government have been strong in their condemnation of SLAPPs, and I was proud to see the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Act 2023 recently receive Royal Assent. That Act allows judges to throw out SLAPPs relating to economic crime, which is a good first step: at least 70% of the SLAPP cases identified by the Foreign Policy Centre in 2022 were connected to financial crime and corruption. However, we cannot and must not stop there, so I welcome the fact that the Government are supporting the Bill. We need to prevent all forms of SLAPPs once and for all, and this Bill is the mechanism for doing that.

The urgency of this issue cannot be overstated. The Coalition Against SLAPPs in Europe found that 820 SLAPPs took place in Europe in 2023, compared with 570 in 2022—a 44% increase. The United Kingdom was named a SLAPP hotbed, and the forum of choice for would-be SLAPP initiators. A Birmingham Law School professor has said that the high costs of defamation litigation and the ability of foreign claimants to resolve disputes in the UK has made this country an ideal location for SLAPPs.

Other legislatures have already taken action. Several US states have introduced similar laws, and the European Parliament is expected to approve similar anti-SLAPP directives next week. As a result, if we do not pass this Bill today, Britain risks being left behind in an area in which we should be proudly leading. As more places prohibit SLAPPs, the chance that more cases will be brought in the UK increases further.

We must be clear that the only purpose of SLAPPs is to silence critics; they have no legal merits. We must act to protect this country’s international reputation for upholding the rule of law, and our hard-fought freedoms of speech, justice and the press. We must ensure that journalists and publishers can publish information, backed by sources and facts, concerning any individual, no matter the size of their bank account.

We in this country are proud of the leadership we have shown following the bloody Russian invasion of Ukraine, and passing this Bill would be a small but important way of contributing to that leadership. I again thank the hon. Member for Caerphilly for bringing this Bill to the Chamber, and I look forward to supporting its passage through the House.

Photo of Apsana Begum Apsana Begum Llafur, Poplar and Limehouse 10:00, 23 Chwefror 2024

I commend my hon. Friend Wayne David for his work in bringing this Bill to the House, and I thank campaigners for what they are doing to prevent the misuse of litigation to suppress freedom of speech. Democratic and press freedoms are fundamental to our rights and to challenging corruption and the abuse of power. When whistleblowers speak out and journalists and a free press report the truth, society is better for it.

Just this week, Julian Assange’s extradition appeal closed at the Royal Courts of Justice. It is concerning to hear that he is unwell and unable to appear in court. I am conscious that the proceedings are ongoing, but I want to say that human rights are central to what is happening in his case. The issue is not just how he has been treated, simply for telling the truth; if extradited, he could be at risk of treatment amounting to torture, and other forms of ill-treatment and punishment, including the death penalty.

Julian Assange’s case has profound consequences for press freedom and democracy around the world. We cannot say that we stand for press freedom if that freedom exists only if it does not challenge certain powers, or go beyond what they want. As my hon. Friend said, our freedoms are undermined when the rich and powerful use the threat of costly legal action to suppress public criticism. That is why, last year, many of us welcomed amendments to the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Act 2023 that gave UK judges new powers to dismiss lawsuits that attempt to silence those speaking out about economic crime. However, given the limited scope of the Act and certain shortcomings in its text, those amendments fell short of providing meaningful protection against SLAPPs.

There is inequality under the legislation for those subject to SLAPPs that do not relate to economic crime and corruption. We know that powerful men use their power and the law to silence women. The purpose of such proceedings, often described as gagging orders, is to silence, intimidate, discredit and further disempower survivors. Some campaigners call it gendered censorship. It happens in the UK, but it is also a global phenomenon.

Although I welcome the ambition of the Bill, I believe there may be scope for further amendments about the definition of a SLAPP, so that domestic abuse is fully covered, particularly in the understanding of “public interest”. I say that because we all know of a series of libel cases in which wealthy men have sought to protect their reputation when women accuse them of abuse. Current legislation puts survivors at a disadvantage. For example, under the Defamation Act 2013, the defendant in libel cases can argue a public interest defence, but that is not available to survivors. I appeal to the Government to look at that carefully, and at how the Bill can be extended beyond the civil courts to the family courts.

In January 2022, I participated in a Backbench Business debate on the use of lawfare and strategic litigation against public participation by those seeking to suppress public debate, bully people into submission and conceal vital information that is in the public interest. I described my experience of lawfare being used against me. The House will be aware that I was completely cleared and vindicated in Snaresbrook Crown court after what I and many others in my constituency and around the UK viewed to have been vexatious litigation, pursued with the purpose of shutting down my public participation as a democratically elected socialist Member of Parliament and a survivor of domestic abuse.

The use of lawfare by abusers to pursue their current or ex-partner is coming to light more and more. I am aware that the occurrence of civil litigation cases of this nature has drastically increased, particularly following the widely publicised Amber Heard versus Johnny Depp case in the US. The most common proceedings we see brought are by men accused of sexual misconduct and/or domestic violence launching vexatious cases in relation to defamation, libel, the misuse of private information, harassment and press injunctions.

The UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression, Irene Khan, writing in a dedicated report on gender censorship in 2021, said:

“In a perverse twist in the #MeToo age, women who publicly denounce alleged perpetrators of sexual violence online are increasingly subject to defamation suits or charged with criminal libel or the false reporting of crimes. Weaponising the justice system to silence women feeds impunity while also undermining free speech.”

In addition, barristers Jennifer Robinson and Dr Yoshida make the argument in their book that the current situation strikes an unfair balance between his right to reputation and her right to freedom of speech. What is missing in the legislation in the UK as it stands is a recognition of the importance of her additional rights: her right to live a life free from gender-based violence and her right to equality.

The practice of abusers weaponising civil litigation against survivors is a continuation of abuse, as well as additional trauma. I often find myself asking, “If we cannot speak about violence against women and girls, how can we even tackle it?” By their nature, these cases misuse the courts and are brought against survivors to silence them and re-victimise them emotionally and financially. I urge the Government to look at the situation in the family courts, as well as the civil courts. No one should suffer domestic abuse, and anyone in such a situation should be supported in speaking out. It is a matter of public good and public interest.

Photo of Chris Clarkson Chris Clarkson Ceidwadwyr, Heywood and Middleton 10:07, 23 Chwefror 2024

It is a pleasure to follow Apsana Begum. May I start by congratulating Wayne David? He has brought forward an excellent private Member’s Bill, and this is entirely what we should be doing with Friday sittings. I love Friday sittings; I have outed myself as a geek on multiple occasions. For me, this is what the job is about—coming here and talking at length about stuff that is important to people.

I also out myself as a lawyer and wave my LLB about. I am passionate about our legal system and believe keenly in it. It is the jewel in the crown of our state. It is par excellence and second to none. It deeply grieves me when something so important is perverted for the narrow interest of a small cadre of people who have rightly deduced that a technical flaw is available to them, and they have enough money to exploit it. The system should not be exploitable purely because someone has the financial resource to do it. We should not be able to purchase justice in this country—but people do that.

I will speak to two main issues only that I have deduced from reading this private Member’s Bill—which I will support fully, I hasten to add. The first is a matter for when the Bill reaches Committee, and that is how we address the serious problem of forum shopping. This country has a particularly robust approach to defamation legislation. Imagine that I publish a book like “Putin’s People”, for example: it could be the case that it is published in 18 different countries but that I only get sued in this one, because this country is the one that is most technically adept at allowing somebody to get money out of me and keep me quiet. That will then prevent me from being able to publish that book in other places; effectively, that process in one country will gag me in other countries. I think we can do something in that space. The hon. Gentleman has put together an excellent Bill. It is one for the pinstripe-suited—I am actually not wearing a pinstripe suit today—geeky bods to get into. We will have to drill down into the Bill to ensure that it is as robust as possible, but I am happy with its direction.

My second point is about addressing what the Bill is really about. It is about not technical amendments to the legal system—as much as I love those—but freedom of speech. Freedom of speech is one of the most fundamental rights in every democracy. The United States constitution starts with:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting…the freedom of speech, or of the press;
or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

That is an incredibly powerful and potent set of clauses that prevents the situation we are discussing from happening in the United States. We have to rely on article 10 of the European convention on human rights; and I will say now, for the avoidance of doubt, that you will get me through a wood chipper faster than you will get me through a Division Lobby to take us out of that.

Article 10 is incredibly important, but it is not adequate for the task ahead of us, and that is why this is such an important Bill. As a Member of Parliament, I want to be able to go out and talk about what is correct, right, proper and decent, without having to rely on the fact that I have immunity in this Chamber, but I cannot do that without fear or favour at the moment, because this lawfare system—I think the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse coined that term, which is an effective way of describing what is going—is basically being used to destroy one of the fundamental principles of our democracy.

The hon. Member for Caerphilly is entirely right and proper to bring us this Bill. I will enthusiastically support it; if he needs people for Bill Committee when it gets to that stage, I will be there—and I am afraid I will be talking a lot.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Llafur, Hammersmith 10:11, 23 Chwefror 2024

It is a pleasure to take part in the debate, particularly with you in the Chair, Mr Speaker. This is essentially a debate about free speech, which I know is of great concern to you not only in this Chamber but outside it. It is also of particular concern to my hon. Friend Wayne David, and I congratulate him on bringing the Bill forward. He is quite busy with his other hat on, as the shadow Minister for the Middle East, so it is good that he has time to be here on a Friday to promote his Bill. I hope he has the Government’s support.

I would say that this became a live issue for the House when Sir David Davis held his January 2022 debate on lawfare and the UK court system; as with everything American, the terms “SLAPPs” has taken over the language here, but lawfare is effectively the same thing. On that day, which was really the issue’s first run-out, I replied for the Opposition. There were many strong contributions, and the debate put the issue on the map, including on the Government’s map.

Let us give the Government a little bit of credit, although not too much; there has been some progress. We have heard about what is in the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Act 2023, dealing with the issue of SLAPPs, but in a particular way and for a particular type of offence—that is, around economic crime—and the anti-SLAPPs taskforce also meets, but it is somewhat disappointing that the Government have not brought forward their own comprehensive legislation on the issue. I hope they will use the agency of my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly to get something on the books in the time available in this Parliament. Nevertheless, we have not done the entire job. That is no criticism at all of my hon. Friend, and I do not know whether that is an invitation for me to be on the Bill Committee as well.

I will deal with three points that need slightly further attention. The first, which my hon. Friend mentioned, is the issue of SLAPPs taking place in the dark—pre-issue, as it were. There has been some attention by the Solicitors Regulation Authority to that in issuing guidelines, but there is still quite a strong feeling that many SLAPPs were effective long before getting to the courtroom because of the intimidation—which we should not underemphasise—placed on individuals. They may be authors or journalists, but they may just be individual members of the public. The intimidation may even be of corporations, and yet they cannot take the risk because they are up against people with not just deep, but bottomless, pockets. We heard about the £1.5 million cost for Catherine Belton in relation to “Putin’s People”. That was pocket money for Abramovich, but for a publisher—let alone a journalist—it is a significant sum of money. A more comprehensive view of how SLAPPs act is important in relation to resources.

I do not want to disagree with my hon. Friend, but we need to look at the point that the Anti-SLAPP Coalition and the NUJ have raised—and Richard Foord—about a subjective or objective test. That is not easy. Obviously, there are subjective as well as objective tests throughout the legal system. Nevertheless, there is a real fear that the need for a defendant to show subjective elements will be a path for the claimant to tie proceedings up in knots, complicate things and drag them out. I do not know what the solution is, but we should at least explore that and listen to the expert organisations, particularly the National Union of Journalists and the Anti-SLAPP Coalition, which are urging us to take that course.

Photo of Richard Foord Richard Foord Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Defence)

Does the hon. Member think that a minor amendment could be introduced to add an objective test based on observable features of abuse, to help prevent litigation from being misused to suppress freedom of speech?

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Llafur, Hammersmith

It sounds like the hon. Member wants to be on the Bill Committee and is drafting his amendments in his head. I have never known a private Member’s Bill Committee to be so popular. I am not a legal draftsman and I do not know the answer to his question, but we need to bottom out this issue, because it seems to be attracting the most attention.

Other issues have been raised about overlaps with the Defamation Act, and costs. There are provisions on costs in the Bill, but it is about whether they are driving down costs as far as they can, and about public interest. A number of areas could be further explored, even in this short Bill. Costs are a vital but often neglected part of the legal process. This is a hobby-horse of mine. We have just discussed the Media Bill in the House, and the repeal of section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013, which in effect takes Leveson part 1 out of the equation with regard to having a level playing field for victims of press abuse—if I can put it that way.

On SLAPPs, the Government appear to support legislation such as this to prevent costs being used as a weapon to prevent people getting their just deserts and their day in court, but there is a different situation when it comes to the media itself—I cannot for the life of me see the difference. Of course, Leveson cuts both ways; Leveson also provided a formula for protecting small publishers against exactly the sort of people who take part in SLAPPs—indeed, he could have used the word “SLAPPs” in his report. It also protects the innocent victims of press abuse because the press magnates—not journalists and small publishers but major publishers—also have bottomless pockets.

In his response or during the passage of the Bill, could the Minister think again, at the very least, about how the Government will approach the issue of small publishers and journalists being sued in order to protect the so-called privacy—often the nefarious activities—of very wealthy individuals and corporations. This can affect anyone, including journalists like Tom Burgis, who won his case. The experience did not discourage him, because next week I am hoping to go to the launch of his latest book, “Cuckooland: Where the Rich Own the Truth”. Let me give him a little plug—it will soon be available from all good bookshops. It takes huge courage for someone to risk everything simply in the course of prosecuting their employment, when there is the risk of bankruptcy or being dropped by their publisher—although that was not at risk, I have to say, in Tom’s case.

We heard about the case of Charlotte Leslie, a former colleague of ours, who was effectively persecuted through the courts. We are lucky; we have the protection of privilege here. However, when we step outside this place, we can become a victim in that way, just like anybody else who is, with good intent, simply trying to tell the truth.

This even affects organisations such as the Serious Fraud Office, which is still being prosecuted through the courts by the Eurasian Natural Resources Corporation. The Serious Fraud Office launched the action in good faith, and there was what I would call retaliatory SLAPP action. Although the original action by the SFO has been discontinued, the SLAPP continues. It really does look like a topsy-turvy world when organisations that we should rely on to regulate society—in which I include investigative journalists, Members of Parliament, and certainly criminal investigation organisations—themselves become the victims of those they wish to call out.

That is why we urgently need a much more comprehensive approach to SLAPPs, and that is why I fully welcome the Bill and will support it today. However, I think we can do more work on this. In responding today, I hope the Government will express their strong support and their desire to go further.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Victims and Sentencing) 10:21, 23 Chwefror 2024

This could be quite a big day for the Welsh, with my hon. Friend Wayne David introducing his Bill and my hon. Friend Ruth Jones introducing hers later, I hope. I also hope to move from the Front Bench to the Back Benches to introduce my own Bill later in proceedings, so that is three Welsh Bills this morning. Of course, on the Front Bench we also have my right hon. Friend Mark Tami from the Opposition Whips Office, so it really is a big morning for the Welsh.

My hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly and I came into the House together in 2001—it is hard to think that that is nearly 23 years ago. I congratulate him on his first outing in all that time promoting a private Member’s Bill this morning. I am glad he was successful in the ballot, as it is an important Bill. For years, strategic lawsuits have enabled the wealthy and powerful to weaponise their wealth to sue critics into silence. As hon. Members have said, it is important that this House votes to put an end to these tactics that gag the press and intimidate people asking legitimate questions by threatening them with enormous legal costs—lawfare, as it has been referred to today.

I thank those who have participated in the debate: my hon. Friends the Members for Poplar and Limehouse (Apsana Begum) and for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter), and the hon. Members for Heywood and Middleton (Chris Clarkson) and for West Bromwich East (Nicola Richards). They all spoke extremely effectively in support of the Bill, but also raised appropriate questions about how it should proceed in Committee. I am pleased that the Bill has cross-party support, and I understand the Government are in full support of it. I can confirm that it has the support of those on the Labour Front Bench as well.

It is a step forward that the scope of protection provided for in the Bill is not limited, as is currently the case, to economic crime. SLAPPs, often masquerading as defamation or privacy claims, are not really about seeking justice, but about imposing silence—exploiting the financial and emotional strain of proceedings to discourage individuals from exercising their right to speak on matters of public interest.

Labour has long recognised the danger posed by SLAPPs to our democratic values. We have already committed to introducing legislation to halt the ability of Russian oligarchs and the super-wealthy such as Roman Abramovich, who has already been mentioned today, to use their wealth as a weapon against those who dare to scrutinise their actions. The background to my hon. Friend’s Bill is rooted in a disturbing trend of legal harassment. From aggressive pre-action letters to the targeting of vulnerable financial defendants, SLAPPs undermine the foundations of accountability and freedom of speech. The enormous legal costs threatened by SLAPPs serve not justice, but the suppression of truth.

The Bill is not merely a response to a growing trend of legal harassment, but a declaration of our values as a society that cherishes free speech and the rule of law. It broadens the scope beyond economic crimes, offering protection across all public interest discourse to ensure that no avenue is left for the misuse of our legal system to suppress legitimate scrutiny and accountability. The legal reforms proposed by my hon. Friend in his Bill are both necessary and timely. They reflect a deep understanding of the challenges posed by SLAPPs, as outlined in the evidence sessions of several parliamentary Committees. By providing mechanisms for early dismissal and costs protection, and extending protections to all courts and tribunals, we are fortifying our defences against the abuse of legislation.

As we consider the provisions of the Bill, let us remember the individuals—and, indeed, institutions—who have been unjustly targeted by SLAPPs. Their struggles underscore the imperative for this legislation. I acknowledge the efforts of campaigners, including the UK Anti-SLAPP Coalition, for their tireless work in bringing this issue to light. We must ensure that our legal system serves justice, not the interests of those who seek to wield it as a tool of oppression.

I acknowledge the issues that have been raised about the Bill. I am sure they will be rehearsed in Committee when we will have a deeper discussion on them. In addition to the concerns that have been raised, we need to make sure—although I am sure it does not—that the Bill does not prevent ordinary people who wish to restrain the publication of libels and intrusions by wealthy publications from being able to do so in law. As my father always used to say, in life we should help the weak against the strong. I know that that is my hon. Friend’s intention in bringing forward his Bill.

I urge all hon. Members to support the Bill. In doing so, we are taking a stand against the tactics that gag our press, intimidate our citizens and erode our democracy. It is a step forward in an ongoing effort to protect freedom of expression and to ensure that those who seek to report on wrongdoing can do so without fear of retribution. In the fight for justice and accountability, there is no room for silence. The Bill can help to end the scourge of SLAPPs and reaffirm our dedication to the principles of democracy and freedom.

Photo of Mike Freer Mike Freer Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice 10:26, 23 Chwefror 2024

I congratulate Wayne David on bringing forward the Bill, and the numerous campaigners who have been pressing this issue for many years. As we have heard, SLAPPs are an abuse of our courts and our laws by corrupt individuals who seek to stifle free speech and a free press—two of the linchpins of our democracy.

I cannot talk about the specific case that Apsana Begum raised, but I can reassure her that the Bill widens the scope beyond what is in the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Act 2023 and that it now talks about all kinds of behaviours. I am more than happy to discuss the specific issues with the hon. Member for Caerphilly, as it is his Bill, to see what we can do to ensure that we either reassure or accommodate her on the specific issues she wishes to see covered.

This issue became increasingly pressing when the Russian oligarchs and allies of Putin used this process for their own ends. Alongside them, we saw behaviour by multinational corporations or disreputable landlords to use and abuse our processes. SLAPPs must always be taken seriously and tackled swiftly. In this House, we have the ability and the privilege to ensure that such abuses are addressed head-on. This House stands for free speech and for holding the powerful to account, and for always seeking to ensure that the best interests of the public, in the widest sense, are being served by the law.

SLAPPs-style litigation is an abuse of power designed to inhibit public interest investigations and reporting. The harm that SLAPPs cause is not only that they stifle public comment by forcing its removal or editing it; they also discourage journalists, academics and campaigners from investigating issues in the first place, leaving matters of public interest undiscovered and the British public in the dark. In this way, the effect of SLAPPs is far more pernicious. We cannot sit by and allow our media to feel that some people and organisations cannot be subject to scrutiny just because they have unlimited financial firepower to mobilise aggressive legal tactics. To quote Andrew Galizia, whose mother Daphne, a Maltese investigative journalist, was murdered in 2017:

“The aim of these lawsuits is to deprive the target of time and resources, and to deter others from taking up the same story.”

His mother was subject to 43 lawsuits at the time of her death.

Regardless of whether a claim is aimed at an author, an academic, a journalist or a private individual, this abuse of the law to muzzle the free press must not go unchecked. We will not allow our justice system to be abused. In the Government’s response to our original call for evidence, we said that although there are powers enabling courts to strike out cases as an abuse of process, these powers need to be strengthened to counteract the very sophisticated and aggressive actions brought by SLAPP claimants.

The House will be aware of some high-profile cases that have shone a light on SLAPPs—cases such as that brought against the British journalist Tom Burgis, whom Members have already mentioned, who was sued for libel in the High Court by ENRC, an oligarch-owned mining company, following his publication of “Kleptopia: How Dirty Money is Conquering the World”. There were multiple claims issued against Tom Burgis by ENRC, targeting him as an individual author rather than his publisher. These claims concerned his tweets, podcasts and articles that mentioned his book. The case was dismissed early on. The statements complained about were found not to be defamatory and Mr Burgis was vindicated, but how many more cases do not reach our courtrooms due to the intimidatory tactics and costs run up by aggressive claimants before proceedings are even initiated? I think that is the point made by Andy Slaughter, and I will address a couple of his points at this juncture.

We have engaged with the SRA and will continue to do so. As the hon. Member mentioned, warning notices have already been issued. The fines for misbehaviour by solicitors firms have been increased, and pre-action behaviour is a legitimate cause of concern. The Government will continue to engage with the regulator to see how that can be further addressed. As so many people have volunteered to be on the Public Bill Committee, I am sure that, with the indulgence of the hon. Member for Caerphilly, we can look at the issue in more depth.

There is evidence that the number of SLAPPs is increasing year on year. There were 11 cases in the UK in 2020, 25 in 2021 and 29 in 2022. Such worrying and abusive conduct, whereby those with deep pockets attempt to financially bully dissenting voices, is unacceptable in our democracy. The courts must not be a pawn in these underhand attempts to cover up corruption and wrongdoing.

SLAPPs are a modern-day struggle between David and Goliath: we have individual journalists, academics and authors up against extremely wealthy individuals and corporates with unlimited resources on their side. We cannot let this type of intimidation and harassment stand. It is right that wrongdoing and dubious deals are laid bare for the world to see, and those who expose such behaviour should not be afraid of the repercussions of doing so. That is why the Government listened and introduced the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Act 2023 to tackle SLAPP claims connected to financial misdeeds.

That Act meant we were the first country in the world to legislate against SLAPPs at a national level. Although we can argue over whether it was overdue, we were certainly the first to do it, and we ought to take pride in the fact that this legislature acted faster than most. The Act gave cover to only a small part of the SLAPPs regime, and it targeted only one part of economic crime, which is why this private Member’s Bill seeks to address the gaps. It will make sure that the definition of SLAPPs is more comprehensive.

Richard Foord raised the issue of behaviour in the test of objectivity and subjectivity. The issue of subjectivity is not unusual, and the court will consider all evidence before it comes to an assessment, including an explanation from the claimant as to why their claim is reasonable. The courts are, of course, well versed in taking that information into account. The test of subjectivity or intent is not unusual, and it is well established in our court system. Clause 2 gives specific examples of SLAPPs-type behaviour. I believe there is a careful balance between the standard practice of intent and tightening things up to give objective guidance to the judiciary on what constitutes SLAPPs-type behaviour.

The Bill follows the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Act in establishing a cost-protection regime that limits legal costs in SLAPPs claims, protecting defendants from the obscene costs run up by claimants to increase the intimidatory effect of their claim. This will also help to address the glaring inequality of arms between the parties in these cases.

Of course, one of the big steps forward is the ability to secure early dismissal so that these cases do not rumble on and rack up fees, particularly for defendants. The ability to strike out cases at an early stage is a big part of the cost-protection armoury. Our reforms also have to ensure a balance between defending people from SLAPPs-type behaviour and protecting access to justice, which is a fundamental part of our system. It is for the courts and the judiciary to determine whether a case is a SLAPP and whether it has merit. We have acted to remove the level of fear and risk that these cases can engender. The Government are glad to welcome and support this Bill, which builds on the important progress already made.

I thank the hon. Member for Caerphilly for seizing the moment to introduce a private Member’s Bill. This is an opportune time to build on what we have done so far, and to make it more comprehensive. As he outlined so well, the Government have found that the scourge of SLAPPs is unfortunately spreading into new areas, such as sexual harassment, clinical negligence and landlord and tenant disputes. The purpose of this Bill is to tackle such behaviour. If the behaviour looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a SLAPP. [Interruption.] Sorry, that is rather clumsy English. I am sure Hansard will correct me.

This Bill is a major step forward, and it is time to legislate. The majority of SLAPPs were thought to be linked to economic crime, but it is time to move on and make the definition more all-encompassing.

I will cover a couple of points raised by hon. Members. My hon. Friend Nicola Richards raised the Belton case again. Information from all SLAPPs cases formed part of the call for evidence, so I can reassure her that the activities in the Belton case will be part of the foundation of this Bill.

My hon. Friend Chris Clarkson spoke about forum shopping, which I will look at, and I am sure he will raise it in his customary fashion in Committee. I am sure the hon. Member for Caerphilly will urge him not to talk quite as much as he promises.

It is a credit to this Parliament that Members of all parties have rallied to support action on this issue and to introduce new laws to help ensure the integrity of our justice system and to support the freedoms and protections that we all cherish. In some ways, a private Member’s Bill is the most fitting way to complete what the Government started.

I have spoken about the work we are doing with the Solicitors Regulation Authority to ensure that it tightens up its regulation, and we will continue to engage with it. I pay tribute to the UK Anti-SLAPP Coalition, which has been an enormously effective stakeholder. The coalition has supported the Government’s efforts, and I thank it for its consistent engagement and clarity on this issue.

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport launched the SLAPPs taskforce last September, with a remit to develop non-legislative recommendations to tackle SLAPPs. Good progress is being made on a number of fronts, and I thank the Secretary of State for her tireless commitment.

Internationally, the UK was represented as an expert member of the Council of Europe’s Working Group on SLAPPs, which concluded its mandate in December 2023. The draft recommendation which was produced over the course of two years will now make its way to the Committee of Ministers, and we trust that it will be eventually adopted in all 46 member states.

The Government acted last October by legislating against SLAPPs, because we must not allow our courts to be abused and our legal system manipulated. We are therefore pleased to support the Bill, and will continue to ensure that those who speak out against corruption, who hold the powerful to account and who guard our freedoms through their voices are protected.

Let me again thank the hon. Member for Caerphilly for promoting the Bill. I also thank the officials at the Ministry of Justice for providing all the necessary support as we move forward.

Photo of Wayne David Wayne David Shadow Minister (Middle East and North Africa) 10:40, 23 Chwefror 2024

With the leave of the House, I am very pleased that we have had such a good debate. It is laudable that so many Members in all parts of the House have taken the time to attend and to make such excellent contributions. I also pay tribute to people and organisations outside the House, notably the UK Anti-SLAPP Coalition. It has worked tirelessly on this issue for some time, and its input has been of tremendous value. I thank the Ministry of Justice and its civil servants for their assistance, its briefings and its constructive engagement at all times.

There are a number of issues that many Members consider particularly important, such as the so-called issue of subjective tests. I am inclined to agree with what the Minister said in summing up the debate, but I accept that there is room for further discussion, and we will be able to deal with it in some detail if the Bill goes into Committee.

I agree that cost is a fundamental issue. A number of Members have cited examples in which it is enormously important in ensuring that justice is done and is seen to be done. In her evidence to a Select Committee, the author Catherine Belton said that in London a single letter cost as much as £9,000, addressing concerns that had been expressed by a number of people. If one letter costs £9,000, we all know how much an entire case could cost. Surely that cannot be right in a democratic country which prides itself on freedom of speech, in which freedom of speech is pivotal, and which allows justice for all.

I hope very much that the Bill will continue its progress through the House and will reach the statute book, because I think that that would be a huge step forward for parliamentary democracy.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time; to stand committed to a Public Bill Committee (Standing Order No. 63).