An early dismissal process of cases judged to be strategic litigation against public participation (SLAPPs) will be introduced into statute in a bid to cut short and reduce costs of cases which have no merit to continue, the government revealed today. Junior justice minister Mike Freer MP made the announcement during his closing remarks at a two-day conference organised by the anti-SLAPP coalition of media and free speech groups.

Freer and Shuja

Freer: ‘commitment is absolutely solid’

Source: Michael Cross

Freer told the conference: ‘The UK aims to introduce comprehensive and targeted anti-SLAPP legislation. The government ran a public call for evidence on SLAPPs in March this year, just three weeks after the Russian invasion of Ukraine started. This helped us to get a grip on the scale of the issue.

‘Some of what it uncovered was nothing short of harrowing, laying bare the financial and psychological impact that extensive litigation has on SLAPPs defendants.

‘We intend to turn our planned reforms into reality as soon as parliamentary time allows. Bear with us and we will get around to it but I wanted to go a little bit further, the commitment is absolutely solid.

‘We know that defendants are intimidated by the prospect of years of expensive litigation, indeed, we’ve heard poignant testimonies about this throughout the course of the conference.

‘So, to give our courts more powers to stop this, we plan to introduce an early dismissal process in statute, which will effectively stop claimants from financially and psychologically exhausting their opponents, cutting short cases which have no merit with the use of a three-part test.’

The three-part test, Freer said, would be for the complained-of article to be in the public interest, that the case lacks sufficient evidence of merit to proceed and has some features of abuse of process. Features of process abuse will be set out in a ‘non-exhaustive’ list of factors that are common hallmarks of SLAPPs litigation. 

The announcement follows yesterdays’s SRA warning notice in relation to SLAPP cases and how solicitors should be ‘guarded’ against becoming involved in potentially abusive litigation.

As well as early dismissal, a costs protection scheme will also be introduced to allow SLAPP defendants to litigate against any claims, the minister said. He added: ‘This scheme will be introduced in secondary legislation, once the essential identifying features are set out in statute.’

The SRA is currently investigating 29 firms suspected of SLAPP activity. The regulator 'should be applauded' for its action on SLAPPs, Freer said. 

Describing the legal sector as 'one of our greatest exports', he said 'it would be a pity if that reputation were to be damaged by a few bad apples.

‘The SRA’s decisive action supports the wider cultural shift in the UK away from tolerating activity that tarnishes the integrity of our judicial and legal profession.’

He added: 'The messages you have sent today have been heard in government and we will be acting.'