A Law To Protect Freedom Of Speech

After nearly 23 years as a Member of Parliament, and having never been drawn for a Private Member’s Bill, last year I was fortunate in being drawn fourth. This means that, if my Bill has widespread political support, it stands a reasonable chance of reaching the statute book. I received many suggestions and representations about what the subject of my Bill may be. After a great deal of consideration, I decided that the Bill would be on the subject of SLAPPs – Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation.

At first glance, people might assume that this is a somewhat esoteric subject that has little relevance to ordinary people. Such is not the case. SLAPPs are lawsuits which are designed to intimidate and threaten. They are often brought forward by rich and powerful individuals or corporations in an attempt to undermine freedom of speech and prevent proper examination of unfair or corrupt practices. SLAPPs have become an increasing feature of our legal system before a formal court case or once a court claim has been issued. As things stand claimants can exploit the justice system to obfuscate the transparency that is essential in a healthy democracy.

Over the past few years, there have been a number of high-profile SLAPP cases. These have involved Russian oligarchs and allies of Vladimir Putin. Typically, they employ SLAPPs on bogus defamation and privacy grounds, preventing the publication of information in the public interest. The journalist Catherine Belton and her publisher, HarperCollins, were subject to several legal cases brought by four oligarchs and a Russian state oil and gas company, in connection to the book ‘Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and then Took on the West’.

Another example is the case of Amersi v Leslie. Here a British businessowner brought a defamation case against a former Conservative MP, Charlotte Leslie, who is the managing director of the Conservative Middle East Council. The claim by Amersi was struck out because he had failed to show how Leslie had caused serious harm to his reputation.

Other less high-profile cases have also involved SLAPPs. There is the case of Nina Cresswell who named a man who had violently sexually assaulted her and was sued by the man she had named for defamation. Ms Creswell won a landmark judgment last year, but the very fact that she had to fight the case at all demonstrates the huge gaps that SLAPP claimants are only too ready to exploit.

There are also cases of patients who have left negative reviews for botched plastic surgeries being issued with SLAPP claims by the surgeons, and I have heard of tenants who have spoken out about their uninhabitable housing being issued with SLAPP claims by their landlords.

These examples highlight that there is a very real problem in our justice system that must be addressed and rectified. My Private Member’s Bill is intended to do precisely that.

I have worked alongside the Government and the approach I have adopted is similar to the approach underpinning an earlier piece of legislation, the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Act. The definition of a SLAPP is that used here, and my Bill essentially broadens the scope so that all SLAPPs will be captured in future. My Bill would ensure that any SLAPPs cases in which speaking out is in the public interest would be caught.

In my Bill, there are clear definitions of what constitutes a SLAPP and my Bill provides freedom of expression for everyone. A new dismissal mechanism would stop SLAPP claims as early as possible, with claimants required to prove they were likely to succeed before the case was sent to trial.

Often, a central part of a SLAPP is to intimidate defendants through the threat of exorbitant legal costs. My Bill protects defendants from such costs. New rules would be introduced so that the defendant would not have to pay the claimant’s costs, unless directed otherwise by a judge.

Undoubtedly, SLAPPs can cause huge financial hardship and psychological pressure, and many people are not able to withstand this. As things stand, many SLAPP cases are like David and Goliath, but it is as if David has no slingshot.
In essence, my Private Member’s Bill will provide a real protection for freedom of expression, and it will reinforce one of the essential tenets of our democracy. Significantly, it has cross-party support, and, having had its Second Reading, with a fair wind it could become law in the near future. It will be to Parliament’ s credit if this is the case.

Wayne David MP

Wayne David is the Labour MP for Caerphilly, and was elected in 2001. He currently undertakes the role of Shadow Minister (Middle East and North Africa).