As published in the Guardian
The super-rich are menacing those who seek to scrutinise with SLAPPs: expensive, lengthy and often bogus lawsuits.
Free speech is the fundamental basis upon which democratic life is built. Many of our other precious freedoms stem from it. In the UK, we naturally take it very seriously. But it is now under threat, from oligarchs and crooks who are abusing our world-renowned legal system in order to silence their critics.
There is an epidemic of so-called lawfare cases in the UK. The world’s super-rich are hitting journalists, writers, whistleblowers and anyone else who scrutinises them with Slapps – strategic lawsuits against public participation. These are defamation accusations, often with a spurious basis (if they have any basis at all), brought with the intention of terrifying those who question them.
That is why I am pleased to help launch the Anti-Slapp Coalition’s campaign for a model Slapp law to tackle this huge problem at the heart of our democracy.
Just as London has become a prime location for oligarchs’ money laundering, so has the UK become the ideal site for them to sue their critics. Britain is home to some of the fairest and best courts in the world. But the sheer cost and time required to defend such cases gives the rich and powerful an unfair advantage, and leaves the system open to abuse.
Imagine being an independent journalist who investigates and exposes acts of corruption by a prominent overseas businessman or politician. Now imagine being told that if you do not retract the claims, you will be sued and have to defend yourself against the most expensive lawyers around. Your choice is simple: withdraw your reporting and apologise, or have your life ruined and go bankrupt fighting the Slapp.
The risk is not losing the case – which is often unlikely – but the sheer cost of the vexatious process. And the oligarchs know this. They can afford to fight and potentially lose the cases in the courts; even if a judge rules eventually against them, their critics will have run out of cash by then.
It is a horrible scenario to imagine. But it is happening regularly, here in the UK. Our courts are facilitating it not by their rulings, but by the cost and complexity of the process. And British law firms are making huge sums of money out of it by representing the accusers. As a result of it all, free speech is suffering.
These cases pose a problem for all of us – not just for those directly targeted by lawfare. This kind of authoritarian tactic undermines the fairness of our legal system. Oligarchs use Slapps to make an example of what will happen to anyone who dares question them, meaning people avoid applying scrutiny altogether for fear of retribution.
The health of our democracy as a whole relies on journalists and investigators having the freedom to criticise the powers that be. The work they do provides one of the only forms of scrutiny of the behaviour of the world’s richest people. So we all pay a price when it becomes harder and harder for them to do that work, as those who should be facing justice are able to evade it. Indeed, a government report this year found that some journalists “no longer publish information on certain individuals or topics – such as exposing serious wrongdoing or corruption – because of potential legal costs”. This is a tragedy for democracy.
I held a debate on this in the House of Commons in January this year, at which colleagues from across the political divide united to air their concerns and call for action. The government then picked up the problem, and I am glad that ministers have committed to act. But this is growing more and more urgent with every passing day. The longer ministers sit on their hands, the more people will suffer and the further our legal system will be corrupted by those with malicious intent.
What we need most of all is a commitment from ministers to bring forward, at the earliest opportunity, a free-standing Slapps bill that limits oligarchs’ ability to wage lawfare. It is absolutely clear that the existing legal landscape is not right and that new legislation is urgently needed to stop the rot. Our friends in the US and Europe are taking action; we must not be left behind.
As a starting point, we must change the law to allow the courts to reject the most egregious cases at an early stage. We must force those who bring Slapp cases and lose to pay significant damages, to deter them from launching their cases at all. And we must ensure that those unfairly targeted by Slapps are not lumped with crippling costs. This is what the Coalition Against Slapps in Europe is calling for, and it is what our democracy demands.
In the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the urgency of defending our democratic values has gained a new clarity. We acted swiftly and firmly to sanction Russian oligarchs and others linked to Vladimir Putin’s barbarous regime earlier this year. It is high time that we acted against oligarchs’ abuse of our courts and our values.
Britons are rightly proud that our legal system is a model for the world. If we are to ensure that that remains the case, we must protect it from those who pose such a dire threat to it.