The Memo: UK government facing calls for SLAPP reform

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UK government facing calls for SLAPP reform

Nikolai Viedge – 13 March 2023

The difficulty of working out the balance between free speech and defamation in a healthy democracy is nothing new, but here in the UK the use of Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs) has added fuel to the fire. What’s more, for those interested in defamation, privacy and media law, it is a debate to pay attention to. So, what constitutes a SLAPP?

SLAPPs are, technically, defamation lawsuits, but they are typically brought with the purpose of intimidating or harassing the defendant into silence. Unsurprisingly, journalists were quick to demand that the government step in to prevent them. The UK Government agreed, and in March 2022 launched a call for evidence on reforms to tackle SLAPPs. In July, the then justice secretary Dominic Raab indicated that the government was moving to implement a statutory early dismissal process, something that hasn’t yet happened. However, some in the profession argue that the extent of the threat is exaggerated. In a recent article published in The Law Society Gazette, it was reported that the SRA’s Thematic Review – a spot review last year looking at 50 files from 25 firms practising defamation and privacy work – failed to find any evidence of SLAPPs. In fact, the SRA was unable to identify any misuse of the terms ‘strictly private and confidential’, ‘not for publication’ or ‘without prejudice’. According to the report, while SLAPPs may well exist, images of a systemic threat to free speech are overblown.

Whatever the outcome, there will be significant consequences. Failure to prepare for and regulate against genuine SLAPPs may inadvertently facilitate this strategy for those looking to keep their nefarious dealings quiet. On the other hand, formalizing a definition may be either too inclusive or not inclusive enough, either creating a situation where genuine attempts to protect against libel and defamation are deemed as SLAPPs by the letter of the law, or allowing them to wriggle through. Either way, expect lawsuits to follow. For those interested in issues related to defamation, privacy, freedom of speech and freedom of the press and media, this is definitely something to keep your eye on.