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Lawfare against journalists - Committee calls for action

14 May 2024

The Communications and Digital Committee has written to the Lord Chancellor Alex Chalk MP setting out improvements that should be made to the Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation Bill to ensure it meets its objective of preventing powerful individuals from silencing critics through lawfare and calling for a range of further anti-SLAPP measures.

The Committee welcomes the Government’s work on the National Action Plan for the Safety of Journalists and the SLAPPs Taskforce, and praises the work of Wayne David MP on his Private Members Bill. However, the Committee says that while the Bill is a ‘welcome step’ in the right direction there is a ‘significant risk’ that in its current form the Bill could undermine protections against SLAPPs.

Key proposals

  • Intent to harass – the Committee says there are provisions in the Bill suggesting an intent to cause ‘harassment, alarm or distress’ can be legitimate in ‘properly conducted litigation’. The Committee says this concept is peculiar and concerning for a law intended to prevent abuse of the legal system. The Committee says this must be changed, otherwise the Bill will ‘make the situation significantly worse for defendants, not better’.
  • Pre-action protocols – The Bill does not sufficiently cover pre-action protocols, such as threatening legal letters, used to silence or intimidate journalists. The Committee urges the inclusion of disproportionate or unreasonable pre-action activities.
  • Fining powers for the regulator – The Committee says the maximum fine of £25,000 that the Solicitor Regulation Authority can usually impose on law firms is inadequate. It contrasts this with the £250 million available to the SRA for Alternative Business Structures undertaking legal work, and says there is little logic to this disparity. The Committee say the Bill offers a “rare and valuable opportunity to enable the regulator to impose fines that actually deter wrongdoing” by law firms.

Key actions

  • Outsourcing abusive practices – Some of the most concerning practises used against journalists by law firms are outsourced to PR firms or private investigators and are outside the investigatory powers of the SRA. The letter says the Government should consider extending the remit of the SRA to ensure activities commission by law firms from others are also subject to regulatory oversight.
  • Proceeds of crime: The Committee calls for changes to the law to prevent solicitors from accepting illicit finance to fund SLAPPs claims.
  • Security of journalists: The Committee highlights concerns around transnational repression by foreign states and calls for more action to help journalists facing security threats and personal intimidation.
  • A SLAPPs defence fund: The Committee reiterates its recommendation for a fund to support journalists with early-stage legal advice.

Chair's quote

Baroness Stowell of Beeston, Chair of the Communications and Digital Committee, said:

“The Government has a good story to tell on its efforts to stop SLAPPs and we welcome its recent progress. It is right to support Wayne David’s Private Members Bill to prevent the rich and powerful from silencing critics through the abuse of our legal system. But it is absolutely vital to get the detail right. More changes are needed to ensure the Bill achieves its objective of protecting journalists and whistle blowers.

“In my letter today I have set out some clear steps to do just that. This includes ensuring the idea of causing harassment and distress is not unintentionally endorsed by the Bill, addressing pre-action threatening behaviour by law firms, and giving the regulator consistent fining powers.

“On the topic of fines – I struggle to understand why the fining limit for ‘traditional’ law firms (and it’s these who are generally accused of SLAPPs) is £25,000 – whereas for newer types of law firms it’s £250 million. Keeping the fining limit 10,000 times lower for some of the worst offenders is hardly much of a deterrent.

“Beyond the Bill, there is still much work to do. We need to see concerted action from the regulator to hold law firms to account. We need to prevent solicitors from accepting laundered money or proceeds of crime to fund SLAPP cases. And we need to remove the regulatory impunity of lawyers to hire unscrupulous PR firms to intimidate journalists.”


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