Solicitors acting for wealthy individuals, corporations and governments in cases designed to silence critical journalism would be shamed under proposals for measures against so-called 'SLAPP' litigation unveiled by freedom of speech campaigners yesterday.
The proposals, which cover judicial guidance, civil procedure reform and primary legislation, are designed to make it unacceptable for lawyers to conduct strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPP). Such actions frequently involve threats by UK-based law firms against media organisations and non-governmental organisations, a conference organised by the Justice for Journalists Foundation and the Foreign Policy Centre heard yesterday.
The three-tier proposals were announced at the conference by the UK Anti-SLAPP Working Group. Recommendations include:
- Updated practice directions to impose security for costs on claimants and to strengthen the use of strike-out powers against cases bearing the hallmarks of SLAPPs.
- A pre-action protocol setting out steps the court would expect parties to take before going to court. This would include engaging in good faith with the right to reply process. This is currently abused by claimants using right of reply to 'intimidate and threaten', specialist media lawyer Sandhiya Sophie Argent told the conference.
- A call for the Ministry of Justice to consult on an anti-SLAPP law, along the lines of those in 32 US states as well as Australia and Canada. This would include an early dismissal mechanism to filter out SLAPPs. Courts would be empowered to issue security for costs and, where necessary, civil restraint orders along the lines of those imposed on persistently vexatious litigants.
The law should also include 'an affirmative right to public participation', Charlie Holt of free speech group English PEN said.
Working group member Rupert Cowper-Coles, a partner at City firm RPC specialising in defending media organisations, described the proposals as 'desperately needed'. 'There's got to be something wrong when litigation is used by wealthy people with English lawyers to intimidate and sue investigative journalists for producing public interest journalism.'
The working group's proposals are open for consultation until 31 December.