The UK has announced plans to clamp down on the use of the courts by Russian oligarchs and powerful elites to “weaponise” litigation as a way of silencing critics and shielding themselves from scrutiny.
Dominic Raab, deputy prime minister and justice secretary, will on Thursday set out proposals to protect free speech and stop wealthy corporations and businesspeople using the courts in England and Wales to lodge libel lawsuits known as Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs).
MPs have expressed concern that deep-pocketed litigants, including Russian oligarchs, have used the threat of legal action to stifle free speech and discourage media scrutiny of their financial affairs because publishers face sky-high legal costs to defend a court case, even if it has little or no merit.
Tory MP David Davis told the House of Commons in January that the fear of libel lawsuits, dubbed “lawfare”, is causing a “chilling effect” on the free press and that the English court system was being used by “those with nefarious intentions” to “threaten, intimidate and put the fear of God into British journalists, citizens, officials and media organisations”.
“Some newspapers hesitate to cover certain topics, such as the influence of Russian oligarchs, for fear of costly litigation,” Davis told MPs.
Catherine Belton, author of Putin’s People, a book that details the rise to power of Russia’s president Vladimir Putin, and her publisher HarperCollins, were sued last year by four Russian oligarchs including Roman Abramovich, who has now been placed under sanctions, and Russian state-run company Rosneft. The lawsuits were later settled or withdrawn.
Testifying before the House of Commons foreign affairs select committee on Tuesday, Belton — a former Financial Times journalist who now works for Reuters — said the lawsuits had cost the publisher £1.5mn to defend and could have cost £5mn in legal costs if the cases had gone to trial.
Raab will signal on Thursday that the proposals are aimed at protecting the free press and ensuring the super-rich could not “weaponise” litigation to shut down scrutiny. “The government will not tolerate Russian oligarchs and other corrupt elites abusing British courts to muzzle those who shine a light on their wrongdoing.”
The government is examining several options for reform — including amending the Defamation Act 2013 to strengthen the public interest defence, which gives protection to publishers if their reporting is in the public interest.
Other options being considered include capping the legal costs that litigants can recover in court cases, allowing judges to throw out spurious claims at an earlier stage in legal proceedings and imposing court orders to prevent people from bringing repeated legal cases.
Raab has launched a call for evidence that runs until May 19, with ministers to announce the next steps for reform after the responses have been considered.
Boris Johnson, prime minister, said in a statement: “For the oligarchs and super-rich who can afford these sky-high costs the threat of legal action had become a new kind of lawfare. We must put a stop to its chilling effect.”
Dawn Alford, executive director of the Society of Editors, welcomed the consultation and said that SLAPPs had a “chilling effect” on public interest journalism and “pose a grave threat to media freedom”.
Michelle Stanistreet, general secretary of the National Union of Journalists, said the trade union would welcome moves to ensure media outlets “no longer have to face prohibitive costs and deliberate intimidation by wealthy litigants with the deepest of pockets”.