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Backbench debate on the rise of ‘SLAPP lawsuits’ – a threat to freedom of expression 

A backbench debate heard that SLAPP lawsuits –  Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation – are having a chilling effect on freedom of expression.  

Defamation claims are most identified as SLAPPS and used to silence a critic, such as a journalist, by engaging them in costly litigation, rather than because of any legal merit. Other legal claims relating to the publication of information may also be relevant such as privacy or data protection. 

The shadow solicitor-general, Andy Slaughter, said that SLAPP lawsuits are an ‘increasing feature’ of the UK legal system and that ‘Their intention is to silence legitimate interests, not by merit or argument, but by process and oppressive conduct, and they prevent journalists, investigators and even regulatory bodies from shining lights on issues of great public interest.’  

Labour MP Stephen Kinnock accused some lawyers as ‘doing the dirty work’ of ‘hostile regimes’ and rich individuals. 

Although some say that the allegations of ‘lawfare’ are exaggerated, the implications of SLAPP lawsuits, for whistleblowers, journalists and for free speech more widely, are not to be underestimated. Protect is concerned about the increase of SLAPPS. 

The backbench debate coincided with Observer and Guardian journalist Carole Cadwalladr defending herself at the High Court, against an accusation of defamation brought by Arron Banks, the multi-millionaire businessman and outspoken backer of Brexit. The case concerns a remark made in a talk at the Ted technology conference by Cadwalladr in April 2019, and a related tweet over the relationship between Banks and the Russian Government. 

Cadwalladr has said, “Please do not let this happen to another journalist. It’s been too much. I have not coped. A SLAPP suit is meant to isolate & discredit the individual. To separate journalist from news org. And it did. Which is why I’m so grateful to Observer colleagues who came regardless.” 

The High Court case could serve as a landmark test of the public interest defence.  

Other recent SLAPP lawsuits include a defamation claim brought by Roman Abramovich against HarperCollins and journalist Catherine Belton regarding Belton’s book ‘Putin’s People’.  Whistleblower Jonathan Taylor’s  former employer SBM Offshore brought a defamation claim (and made criminal complaints) against him in retaliation for the public interest concerns he raised of bribery. Widely viewed as an example of a SLAPP lawsuit, the defamation claim (which failed) was denounced by the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom as an attempt to ‘intimidate’ and ‘silence’ Taylor.  

The High Court’s decision into the Cadwalladr case, is expected to follow in writing later this year.