Clause 1 - Requirement to make rules of court

Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 9:00 am ar 8 Mai 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Julie Elliott Julie Elliott Llafur, Sunderland Central

With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 1—Purpose and Interpretation—

“(1) The purpose of this Act is to protect and promote the ability of individuals and organisations to participate in public debate, advance accountability, and speak out on matters of public interest, and to prevent the use of the courts to undermine these rights through abusive legal action.

(2) Provisions in this Act should be broadly construed and applied to advance the purpose defined in subsection (1).”

This new clause places a purpose and interpretation of the proposed Act at the beginning of the Bill.

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

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Elliott. I tabled this private Member’s Bill to tackle SLAPPs—strategic litigation, or lawsuits, against public participation—in all their forms, so that any abuse of litigation to attack free speech in the public interest, regardless of subject matter, can be addressed through the courts.

The Bill has had a long gestation. On Second Reading on 23 February, the version that I tabled, with Government support, was unanimously agreed by the House, but hon. Members clearly expressed some concerns and made some constructive comments. I am pleased to say that since Second Reading, a quite remarkable and very positive series of discussions has taken place between the Ministry of Justice and me, and between us and a number of stakeholder bodies. There have also been formal and informal discussions with Members who have taken a keen interest in the subject for a long time, in particular the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden. The result has been not total, but a high degree of consensus on quite difficult and intense issues.

I remind everyone that SLAPPs are abusive or threatened lawsuits that are designed to inhibit free speech. These hostile lawsuits masquerade as genuine claims, but their underlying objectives are far more sinister. Such cases are often brought by powerful individuals and corporations with the aim of avoiding scrutiny by shutting down critical voices that seek to hold them accountable.

Protecting freedom of speech in the public interest is something that all parties in Parliament hold in high esteem. In all debates in this House and in the other place, there has been broad consensus on the need for reform to tackle the harmful effect of SLAPPs. As champions of media freedom, we must ensure that the free press is never made so vulnerable that it resorts to self-censorship on vital matters in the public interest. Grounded, well-researched investigative reporting must be protected, not reined in for fear of legal action. Of course, such protections cannot and must not come at the expense of access to justice, but the fact that claimants can currently exploit the system means that that important balance has not been struck. I have worked with the Government to make sure that the approach underpinning the Bill achieves the necessary protections and balances.

Clause 1 provides that rules of court must be made to provide a means of dismissing SLAPP cases at an early stage. The provisions require that rules are developed to make sure that a claim can be struck out where the court has determined, first, that a claim is a SLAPP, and secondly that the claimant has failed to show that their claim is more likely than not to succeed at trial. That will ensure that a court has the power to dismiss SLAPP claims at the earliest possible opportunity, thereby protecting defendants from unnecessary and intimidatory litigation that is used to silence and suppress articles, investigations and reporting being conducted in the public interest.

The rules of court will also establish the appropriate procedure to be followed so that Parliament’s intention to prevent the harm of SLAPPs is properly achieved in such cases. Subsections (2) and (3) provide that the rules will be able to identify what evidence will be considered and the degree to which it will be tested by the court in determining the various matters that it has to address, including the use of presumptions with respect to matters of fact. I will turn shortly to other provisions that will assist the judge, for example by setting out common attributes and behaviours that are characteristic of SLAPP-style litigation.

Clause 1(4) provides for the development of rules to establish costs protection for defendants in cases identified as SLAPPs. The rules will provide that the court must not order the defendant to cover the costs of the claimant in SLAPP cases, unless they themselves have behaved inappropriately. The purpose of this provision is to protect defendants from the exorbitant costs that are currently racked up by claimants in such cases, and from the use of the threat of such costs to intimidate them.

At present, the risks of high costs often force defendants to abandon their legitimate defence against challenges to important reporting in the public interest, because of fear of financial ruin. That is wrong and must be put right. Defendants in SLAPP cases will often not have the same means available to them as claimants; they are therefore commonly intimidated into abandoning cases and/or reporting, even when they know the story in question to be true. They often find that the risks of adverse costs orders, which can result in great personal debt, including having to sell their home or go through bankruptcy, are far too great to contemplate, even for the sake of important stories.

I commend the clause to the Committee.

Photo of David Davis David Davis Ceidwadwyr, Haltemprice and Howden

I commend the hon. Member for Caerphilly for his Bill. It has been long in the coming, but it deals with a very important problem, and it is brilliant that he has actually brought it to the House. If I may say so, he has managed it in a formidably diplomatic way, given the sometimes quite difficult arguments that have gone on. My unreserved congratulations go to him.

The hon. Gentleman has done a brilliant job of outlining the point of the Bill, so I will not reiterate that, save to say that it is a difficult and technical Bill. We are balancing rights—the right to sue for defamation versus the right not to be oppressed and to enjoy free speech—and that is not easy to do. It is a subtle problem. Quite properly, the legal profession, the judiciary and the Ministry of Justice want to maintain that balance. They are very sensitive about that, but we should also remember that the right to sue for defamation is pretty much a rich man’s right. Very few of my constituents will exercise it, and very few people in this room will exercise it—perhaps one or two are rich enough. Nevertheless, it is important that it is maintained; I accept that without reserve.

It is understandable that the Ministry of Justice, in its advice on the Bill, seeks to compromise. I generally agree with compromise, but not with compromise between right and wrong. It has to be said that the Ministry will be being lobbied—with how much effect I cannot say—by the Society of Media Lawyers, including such leading lights as Carter-Ruck, Mishcon de Reya and Schillings, the very people who have created the problem that we are now trying to resolve. People have created a multimillion-pound industry out of oppressing the right to freedom of speech and making London the global capital of that. I could pick a ruder word for it, but I will just say that it is the global capital of SLAPPs.

I have one proposal to put to a vote, but first I want to talk a little about the vagaries of the Bill. Throughout all our discussions, the common theme has been, “How will the judge interpret this phrase, or this clause, in the context of what we are trying to do?” We are trying to protect freedom of speech and, at the same time, people’s right to look after their own reputation in court.

New clause 1 aims to give judges guidance on interpretation and tell them what the high priority of the Bill is. I will read out the clause in full:

“(1) The purpose of this Act is to protect and promote the ability of individuals and organisations to participate in public debate, advance accountability, and speak out on matters of public interest, and to prevent the use of the courts to undermine these rights through abusive legal action.

(2) Provisions in this Act should be broadly construed and applied to advance the purpose defined in subsection (1).”

I ask the Committee to see that as effectively an instruction to the judges as to how broadly they should interpret the Bill when it becomes an Act. I will press no amendments other than new clause 1 to a vote, because there is consensus on almost everything.

Photo of Liam Byrne Liam Byrne Chair, Business and Trade Committee, Chair, Business and Trade Committee, Chair, Business and Trade Sub-Committee on National Security and Investment, Chair, Business and Trade Sub-Committee on National Security and Investment

It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Ms Elliott. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly not only on securing this opportunity, but on working—as the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden said—with formidable diplomacy to steer us to the Bill we have today.

The Bill is unusual in having commanded a great deal of cross-party consensus, ever since the first debate that the right hon. Member and I had the privilege of sponsoring in the House two or three years ago. It is not common to move this quickly from a Backbench Business debate to legislation. That is to be commended; indeed, it is why the Back Benches in this place should be strengthened further and given far more opportunities to legislate.

The Bill builds on an amendment that I had the privilege to move to the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Act 2023. It is outrageous that our courts are being used as arenas of silence to shut down free speech. We have become a place where oligarchs from around the world choose to come, in order to silence truth tellers and journalists who are providing an incredibly important public service.

The Bill is an important step forward, but it is only a step. As the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden says, it cannot be the full solution. In particular, it will not address the plague of pre-litigation action. The number of journalists working in and around this place who tell us of legal letters being sent when they get a whiff of a story to close it down shows that this is a really significant problem. Once the Bill passes, we will need to understand what more can be done to stop the chilling effect of pre-litigation action.

New clause 1 provides us with an important debate. The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden is right to say that part of the delicacy of the Bill relates to making sure that judges have full sight of Parliament’s intention. The debates we have in this place will be unusually important in interpreting and applying the Bill in the courts, so he is absolutely right to say that subsection (1) sets out the basic purpose of the Bill: to maximise the latitude for free speech, truth telling, investigations and good journalism, for which this country is rightly famous. If that comes at the cost of the Ministry of Justice opposing the Bill and killing it today, it will be an unfortunate consequence.

I hope that the Committee can unite around a solution that the Government can support, so that the Bill becomes law. This debate is important, and I hope it will run on here and in the other place to ensure we have a balancing test that secures the objectives of the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden, without incurring a ministerial roadblock in the shape of the Ministry of Justice.

Photo of David Davis David Davis Ceidwadwyr, Haltemprice and Howden

There were two possible approaches to this Bill. One was what we have before us, which is quite complex but seeks to address issues piece by piece; the other was what is known as the Ontario option, which effectively puts in place a parallel to the American first amendment. One of the reasons why new clause 1 is important is that it straddles those approaches. It does not take us down the first amendment and constitutional route, but it does make it clear what we are trying to do.

Photo of Liam Byrne Liam Byrne Chair, Business and Trade Committee, Chair, Business and Trade Committee, Chair, Business and Trade Sub-Committee on National Security and Investment, Chair, Business and Trade Sub-Committee on National Security and Investment 9:15, 8 Mai 2024

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. A debate on the effects of a British version of the first amendment would be very welcome.

When the Minister replies, he could helpfully inform the Committee about a couple of things. First, it would be useful if he took the opportunity to tell us more about how pre-litigation chilling action is to be policed. Schillings, Mishcon de Reya and all the others are perfectly capable of moving their investment to the pre-litigation phase. They will do their damnedest to find their way around the provisions of this Bill, because frankly they are being paid too much not to do so. I would like to hear from the Minister about that.

Secondly, I would like to hear from the Minister—his words will be important, because they will be read by judges when they interpret the Bill—on whether he will put on the record today, in this Committee, some security around delivering the right hon. Gentleman’s objectives. The Bill aims to maximise the latitude for free speech in this country, an important objective that the Minister needs to share with us.

I have further comments to make, but they are probably best dealt with in our debate on clause 2. There are some important issues around the thresholds at which this Bill kicks in and the permissive environment that might be created for bad behaviour that may fall just short of the prohibitions in the Bill, but may none the less be fatal to the humble journalists and news outlets who do such valuable work.

Photo of Julie Elliott Julie Elliott Llafur, Sunderland Central

Before I bring in the shadow Minister, I remind colleagues that electronic devices should be absolutely silent. Somebody’s phone keeps pinging; I do not know whose it is, but could you all check your phones so that it does not happen again?

Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Shadow Minister (Justice)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Ms Elliott. I am pleased to speak to clause 1 stand part. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly on his private Member’s Bill. Its aim to legislate for the remaining SLAPP cases not covered by the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency 2023 is welcomed by the Law Society, which says that

“it’s in the public interest that our justice system works for all people regardless of their means and produces fair outcomes.”

I praise the long-running campaign led by free speech organisations, media practitioners and parliamentarians that forms the backdrop to this Bill. Those organisations include the UK Anti-SLAPP Coalition, which was formed in 2021 and has campaigned for changes to the law to address SLAPPs, as well as supporting individuals targeted by SLAPPs.

Clause 1 sets the stage for action that is long overdue. I am sure that all Committee members agree with the Bill’s important ambition of preventing abuses of the administration of justice. This Bill is about inequality under the law and how we address it. The Opposition supported it on Second Reading and, significantly, it received endorsement across the Benches. From the Front Bench, my hon. Friend Kevin Brennan noted:

“Labour has long recognised the danger posed by SLAPPs to our democratic values.”—[Official Report, 23 February 2024; Vol. 745, c. 963.]

I recognise that the Bill could be stronger, but we are content that it is necessary to bring about important change. We would not want to lose the Bill altogether or disrupt its progress. We recognise the importance of striving for a balance between the legitimate right to sue and freedom of expression. We would not want to close the door on individuals getting a remedy in court in appropriate cases.

As we have heard, clause 1(1)(b) will allow claims to be struck out if

“the claimant has failed to show that it is more likely than not that the claim would succeed at trial.”

I am mindful of the Law Society’s concerns that this measure will shift the onus of proof to the claimant in applications to strike out a claim:

“This represents a high threshold that a potential claimant would have to reach simply to be able to bring a claim. The test makes no allowances for cases in which a claimant may have a meritorious case but may not be able to demonstrate at the outset sufficient evidence to meet the threshold. This therefore has potential consequences for access to justice.”

I invite the Committee to discuss these concerns. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly will outline in a little more detail why clause 1(1)(b) is drafted as it is, or perhaps the responsibility for sorting this out falls to the Minister.

I turn to new clause 1. I am pleased, and unsurprised, to see the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden contributing to the Bill. His campaigning against lawfare cases is well known, and I pay tribute to his tireless commitment to shining a spotlight on the issues and calling for action. I heard the concerns that my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly has expressed about some aspects of the proposed new clause. I hope that the Minister will provide an appropriate response to the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden and perhaps see how we can help him in his ambitions for the Bill on Report.

Photo of Mike Freer Mike Freer Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Elliott.

I will not detain the Committee long. I wish to state my support for the hon. Member for Caerphilly in introducing the Bill, and for the approach that he has taken in steering it forward. However, I will try to address all the concerns raised by various parties—not least the constructive and weighty contributions from right hon. and hon. Members.

As we have heard, SLAPPs are the purview of corrupt individuals seeking to stifle free speech and a free press by abusing our courts and our laws, and to undermine our democracy. No matter who brings the case, SLAPPs must always be recognised as an affront to our renowned courts and legal system, and they should be tackled swiftly.

The Ministry of Justice has been keen to ensure swift passage of the Bill, and I pay tribute to the officials who have provided support to the hon. Member for Caerphilly and other Members in trying to fine-tune it. I gently say to the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill that the Department has certainly not been a roadblock—quite the reverse. We have been doing our best to ensure a swift and smooth passage.

Strategic litigation against public participation is a bullying display of power designed to silence investigations and reporting in the public interest. SLAPPs cause harm not only by stifling public comment but by forcing its removal or editing, leaving a sanitised version of events that may far underplay the true severity of the information covered. They discourage journalists, academics and campaigners from investigating issues in the first place, using intimidation to ensure that matters of public interest remain hidden, and leave the British public in the dark. The effect of SLAPPs is pernicious, and we cannot allow our media to be helpless to act to expose the actions of some people and organisations due to aggressive legal tactics and unlimited resources.

Photo of Liam Byrne Liam Byrne Chair, Business and Trade Committee, Chair, Business and Trade Committee, Chair, Business and Trade Sub-Committee on National Security and Investment, Chair, Business and Trade Sub-Committee on National Security and Investment

I hope the Minister did not mishear me: I was hoping to ensure that the Ministry of Justice does not become a roadblock in the future. I am very grateful for the work that he has done so far. Will he use this moment to put on the record whether he agrees with subsection (1) of new clause 1, tabled by the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden? It provides that the Bill’s purpose should be interpreted as being

“to protect and promote the ability of individuals and organisations to participate in public debate, advance accountability, and speak out on matters of public interest, and to prevent the use of the courts to undermine these rights through abusive legal action”.

Is that basically the intent of the Bill?

Photo of Mike Freer Mike Freer Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

Let me take this opportunity to address two points that the right hon. Gentleman has raised. First, on pre-litigation issues, I will have to write to him to ensure that I get correct the rights that the Lord Chancellor, the Department or the courts will have before a matter gets to court. I will make sure that I get the details so that I do not misinform him.

We cannot support new clause 1, tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden. As I have said to him, I am more than happy, between now and Report, to sit down and try to flesh out where we can find more agreement, but at this stage we cannot support the new clause. While we support the whole thrust of what he is trying to achieve, we feel that the Bill has actually—

Photo of David Davis David Davis Ceidwadwyr, Haltemprice and Howden

The Minister has now said twice that the Government support the thrust of new clause 1. Given the consensus that we have maintained from the beginning, I would rather not divide the Committee. Alongside me, the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill has been the primary driver on this issue since—I cannot remember the actual date, but it was the day after I called for Boris to go. That is the new reference point: not anno Domini, but anno B, after Boris.

If the Minister agrees with the thrust of the new clause, and if he will come back on Report with an equivalent that makes it plain to the judges what the Bill proposes, I will not press it—but I do need that undertaking.

Photo of Mike Freer Mike Freer Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

I can give the undertaking that I will work with my right hon. Friend and the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill to try to ensure that the Bill meets those objectives. We believe that the Bill creates a balance of rights and responsibilities that ensures that we protect free speech while balancing the rights of both claimants and defendants, so that the bad behaviour that has been documented is addressed. Also, the examples of bad behaviour in the Bill and the explanatory notes are not exhaustive.

Photo of Liam Byrne Liam Byrne Chair, Business and Trade Committee, Chair, Business and Trade Committee, Chair, Business and Trade Sub-Committee on National Security and Investment, Chair, Business and Trade Sub-Committee on National Security and Investment

I am very grateful for that constructive reply, but I want the Minister to underline and crystallise the point for the Committee: he is saying that the Government support the thrust of the right hon. Gentleman’s new clause.

Photo of Mike Freer Mike Freer Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

I think the whole Bill supports the thrust of protecting freedom of speech. Equally, as the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill mentioned, we do not have a first amendment, so there is a nervousness about going down a path of establishing some form of first amendment, as the Americans have. We want to ensure that the Bill maintains a balance between claimants and defendants while protecting defendants who cannot protect themselves from the pernicious behaviour that we have all seen and read about.

Photo of David Davis David Davis Ceidwadwyr, Haltemprice and Howden

I raised the first amendment issue, and the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill was responding to that. This is not a first amendment clause at all. The Minister knows as well as I do that, throughout the debate, the argument has been about how the judges will interpret every clause. The fact that the hon. Member for Caerphilly will move the other amendments today indicates that we did not get that balance right in the beginning; indeed, we might have made the problem worse. That is what this is about.

As I said, I do not want to divide the Committee if I can avoid it, and I seek an undertaking from the Minister. The alternative is to bring the new clause back on Report and then whip the thing on behalf of our own argument.

Photo of Mike Freer Mike Freer Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

I repeat my offer to my right hon. Friend and the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill: I am happy to discuss how we ensure that we come to an agreement that the Bill delivers what they want to achieve. However, we believe that new clause 1 is not necessary. Of course, if they believe that the Bill still needs it, my right hon. Friend has the right to move it during the remaining stages.

The offer is there: let us try to work together to see whether we can bridge the gap and persuade each other that we are right. At this point, the Department’s view is that the Bill creates a balance of rights and responsibilities while addressing the bad behaviour and listing, but not exhaustively listing, what bad behaviour will be curtailed.

Photo of Liam Byrne Liam Byrne Chair, Business and Trade Committee, Chair, Business and Trade Committee, Chair, Business and Trade Sub-Committee on National Security and Investment, Chair, Business and Trade Sub-Committee on National Security and Investment

I am grateful to the Minister for his characteristic generosity. He has just told the Committee that he does not think that new clause 1 is needed and that the intention of the Bill as a whole is to support the objectives of the new clause. The new clause is very carefully drafted. It states:

“The purpose of this Act is to protect and promote the ability of individuals and organisations to participate in public debate, advance accountability, and speak out on matters of public interest”.

It therefore falls short of an American first amendment-style provision and, in that sense, has been quite carefully sculpted. I am grateful to the Minister for saying that he does not think it is needed because that is the thrust of the Bill overall, and it is important that that is on the record. I am happy to work with the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden and others to ensure that we have got that beyond doubt.

Photo of Mike Freer Mike Freer Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice 9:30, 8 Mai 2024

We broadly agree, I think, that the Bill is in a good place, but the right hon. Gentleman may wish to take us up on our offer to discuss further why we believe that the Bill strikes a balance in achieving what he wants to achieve while protecting rights and balances when it comes to claimants and defendants. It will stop the pernicious behaviour that we know has been happening while, equally, ensuring that there are no unintended consequences or problems with other rights and responsibilities that could have resulted from the new clause. Let us park that for now and try to flesh the issues out between now and Report. I realise that my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden and the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill reserve their right to move an amendment at a later stage.

The Government firmly believe that clause 1 creates the most appropriate and effective framework for courts to deal with SLAPPs, allowing such claims to be dismissed swiftly. There will also be a fair and proportionate assessment of whether any such claim or part of it should be allowed to proceed, and a fair and proportionate costs sanction should it do so. Allied to the other provisions in the Bill, that framework will ensure that courts will be able to properly tackle SLAPPs in a fair and proportionate way, to ensure that justice to both claimants and defendants is done.

Although the Government share the important concerns raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden and the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill that the purpose of the Bill should be achieved in practice, they consider that the current draft will do so. As I said, we have significant concerns about the possible unwarranted effects of the purpose and interpretation provision in new clause 1. That is why I have made the offer to sit down and work through whether we can find some form of agreement.

I want to put it on the record that we have given careful thought to ensuring that public participation and free speech are protected and that all convention rights are also protected. These reforms are carefully balanced to protect access to justice—a fundamental tenet of our legal system—and to provide the courts with the ability to broadly interpret and apply the principles, to make sure that no devious misuse of litigation is left unaddressed.

Photo of Damian Collins Damian Collins Chair, Draft Online Safety Bill (Joint Committee), Chair, Draft Online Safety Bill (Joint Committee)

Before the Minister brings his remarks to a close, I would like to go back to new clause 1, tabled by my right hon. Friend Sir David Davis. Does the Minister think it important that, in passing this legislation, the Committee and the House should give some direction that considers that people with a public profile should be subjected to greater accountability and debate and that they are different from ordinary private citizens? Should judges take into account whether the criticism of a high-profile person is fair comment in an open society because they are a public figure and different from a private person who would never seek the public eye?

Photo of Mike Freer Mike Freer Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

I am not a lawyer, so I will not be tempted down the path of discussing whether certain people should be subject to greater or less scrutiny in the eyes of the law. In my view, the law applies equally; it is up to the judges to interpret the intention of the Bill, which we have clearly laid out in what we have said and in the explanatory notes. We are seeking to redress the balance when it comes to the rich and powerful misusing our courts, and to protect freedom of speech. I do not want to say that certain people should have more or less scrutiny; I leave it to the judges to clearly interpret the intent of the Bill and the House through the Bill itself, the explanatory notes and the words that right hon. and hon. Members have spoken.

Photo of Damian Collins Damian Collins Chair, Draft Online Safety Bill (Joint Committee), Chair, Draft Online Safety Bill (Joint Committee)

Does the Minister agree that one of the challenges that judges will always face is that every claimant will say that their cause is just and reasonable and that great hurt and offence has been caused by what has been written and said about them? It is important that judges have the confidence to know when they can make a call to say that the litigation is strategic rather than legitimate.

Photo of Mike Freer Mike Freer Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

I believe that the Bill itself, the explanatory notes and comments made by right hon. and hon. Members will give clear direction to the judges so that they understand the intent of the Bill, which is not to stifle a defendant’s access to justice but to stop the bad behaviour that we have seen. Judges will know the intent of the Bill in respect of those seeking to bring the rich and powerful to account or to shine the light of good journalism—the disinfectant of sunlight—on inappropriate actions; equally, however, everyone must have their right to justice as well.

Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Shadow Minister (Justice)

Will the Minister address directly the concerns of the Law Society in relation to clause 1(1)(b)? The clause states that a claim can be struck out if the claimant

“has failed to show that it is more likely than not that the claim would succeed at trial.”

In other words, the onus in terms of proof is shifted on to the claimant rather than the defendant. The Law Society says:

“This represents a high threshold that a potential claimant would have to reach simply to be able to bring a claim.”

Photo of Mike Freer Mike Freer Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

It was certainly not the view of the hon. Member for Caerphilly or the Department that the amendments should be accepted, because we felt that the arguments put forward by the Law Society were not supported and that our Bill created a careful balance. In a nutshell, we did not agree with what the Law Society put forward—neither the amendments nor that particular argument. We think the Bill creates a careful balance between claimants and defendants, and we support it.

Photo of David Davis David Davis Ceidwadwyr, Haltemprice and Howden

On a point of order, Ms Elliott. I have listened to the Minister carefully, and my interpretation is that he will seek to resolve this problem before Report. I will therefore not press new clause 1 today and will seek consensus across the board. However, I give notice that if we do not resolve this issue, it will come back on Report.

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

What can I say? We have had an excellent discussion this morning. It has been very good indeed and has in many ways got to the core of the issue. I want to genuinely thank the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden for prompting this excellent debate through his new clause. As I said, I brought forward this Bill to tackle SLAPPs in all their forms and provide protection for free speech in the public interest. The fact that SLAPP claimants can misuse the justice system shows that the right balance between access to justice and protections against abuse of process is currently not being struck. The Bill must ensure that balance, and it has.

I want to stress that the Bill has been carefully drafted to ensure that all litigants are able to properly and fairly exercise their rights of access to justice. It will ensure that attempts by claimants to misuse the justice system in order to limit the rights of defendants to free speech on matters in the public interest cannot succeed. This point is crucial: it will do so without unduly and unfairly preventing claimants from achieving their own rights, such as the right to not be defamed.

New clause 1, however, risks and draws into question that carefully balanced approach. It is undoubtedly well-intentioned and many of us would agree with the sentiments expressed this morning, but it runs a risk of undermining the efficacy of the Bill as a whole; that is, of course, opposite to the intention of the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden. The new clause risks that by introducing new and uncertain concepts into domestic law, such as the right to public participation, and requiring a supremacy of those concepts over other established rights. These are big and important issues.

Photo of David Davis David Davis Ceidwadwyr, Haltemprice and Howden

I am afraid that, perhaps for the first time in all this, we disagree on something. The right to free speech and public participation is not new in British law: it goes back to Magna Carta.

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

I am not familiar with Magna Carta, but I suspect our common law has moved on somewhat since then.

The uncertainty about the scope and effect of the new clause also raises the somewhat unfortunate spectre of new and unexpected avenues for litigation, when these measures are intended to do the exact opposite. I am clear that the drafting of the Bill makes its purpose transparent. It is a purpose that is consistent with rights already established in domestic and international law and that addresses the fundamental need to ensure access to justice for both claimants and defendants.

Photo of Chris Clarkson Chris Clarkson Ceidwadwyr, Heywood and Middleton

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that at the heart of this is the application of the reasonableness test? Although I agree with the thrust of new clause 1, I think there is an opportunity to apply the existing framework to achieve its goals. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden said, the idea of freedom of speech and public participation is already a fundamental part of our common law, but even when we are applying the reasonableness test we often give judges instruction on how they should interpret reasonableness. Does the hon. Gentleman think that there is an opportunity to ensure, before Report, that we have embedded that concept?

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

I am a very reasonable person—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] I am glad that all Members agree.

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

This is a crucial test, which will be addressed, I am certain, in clauses that we have yet to discuss. There is much to be said for providing a clarification, and that is one of the central things that we will come on to in a few moments’ time.

Photo of Adam Afriyie Adam Afriyie Ceidwadwyr, Windsor

I very much support the direction of travel in new clause 1. Would it not be fairly straightforward for the Minister, even at this stage—although perhaps he does not have the words available—simply to confirm the intention, which might then negate any need for the new clause?

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

In fairness, the Bill’s intention is clearly expressed in the clauses that we have before us. I accept that the discussion will be ongoing; nobody is saying that it is the end of the matter, but as things stand, I think it is fair to say that there has been a great deal of discussion and a great deal of investigation of different options, and that this is the best consensual position that we have established to date. Although of course the debate will continue, I have yet to be persuaded that there is a sound and definitive case for changing what we have before us.

I believe that the Bill provides a sound framework and guidance to our independent judiciary to deal with the serious harm that SLAPPs can cause. Judges are well versed in interpreting provisions, assessing evidence and, ultimately, ensuring that justice is done. I believe very strongly that we must be careful here, because unclear direction or too much direction risks creating difficulties—more difficulties than it resolves. Words have to be precise.

Although I thank the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden for his continued commitment on the issue of SLAPPs and his consideration of the Bill, I consider that new clause 1 at the moment goes a bit too far. It risks undermining, and certainly draws into question, the careful balance that the Bill strikes, as well as the efficacy of the provisions, and it potentially complicates unnecessarily the Bill’s onward passage, and not just in this House; let us remember that it has to go to the other House as well.

Clarification is always needed, and the debate will be ongoing. I understand that the Government are prepared to provide clarification in the appropriate place, such as the explanatory notes. That is extremely important, because the explanatory notes provide the clarification for the Bill and add substantial meaning to it.

Photo of David Davis David Davis Ceidwadwyr, Haltemprice and Howden

May I just say to the hon. Gentleman that I have viewed many court cases in my time and I have heard judges refer explicitly on many occasions to the wording of the law, but I have never yet heard them refer to explanatory notes?

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

The right hon. Gentleman might not have heard judges refer explicitly to explanatory notes, but I know it to be a fact that judges quite regularly provide interpretations and receive information derived from them, so I suggest to him that explanatory notes are very, very important. The two—the legislation itself and the Government’s official explanatory notes—should go in tandem.

I am delighted that the right hon. Gentleman has decided not to press his new clause. I can assure him that I, like the Minister, will ensure that the discussion continues, because this is an important debate. We have had a good discussion this morning; this is not the end of the matter, but it is important at this point to affirm that we stand by what has been put forward. I am delighted that the right hon. Gentleman will not press his new clause, because it would be unfortunate to divide the Committee on an issue on which there is so much genuine understanding and consensus. I thank him for not pressing it, and I give a commitment that the debate will continue.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 1 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.