In an online article for the Telegraph, Alex Chalk said he was “determined to end the brazen abuse” of the criminal justice system by “ultra-rich” individuals, big corporations and oligarchs with links to Vladimir Putin, which put the UK’s journalists, publishers and campaigners in a “chokehold”.
He said their use of bogus legal cases, known as SLAPPs or strategic lawsuits against public participation, were forcing the media and campaigners to pull the plug on investigations – meaning corruption remained hidden and the public were left in the dark.
Mr Chalk will change the law to give judges new powers to throw out legal claims by oligarchs, wealthy individuals and corporations if they are designed to harass journalists or restrain their right to free speech.
Investigations into finances
He also plans to introduce restrictions to cap the costs that journalists or publishers might have to pay in order to prevent them from being financially ruined by legal action from billionaires.
The changes will be introduced through amendments to the economic crime bill currently before Parliament.
They will cover about 70 per cent of SLAPPsrelating to investigations into the finances of wealthy individuals or firms.
Ministers pledged to extend the free speech protections to other areas, including sexual conduct, which would protect investigations into bosses who tried to cover up sexual harassment of their employees.
Trumped-up legal cases
This follows cases such as that of journalist Catherine Belton, who was sued by Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich over claims of his close relationship with Vladimir Putin, and a libel claim brought by a Kazakh mining giant over a journalist’s book about “dirty money”, which was thrown out by the High Court.
Mr Chalk said: “With their deep pockets, they use trumped-up legal cases to aggressively hound journalists, academics and activists who dare to expose their shady dealings.
“Masquerading as genuine cases under our world-renowned privacy and defamation laws, SLAPPs bully critics into silence so that claimants can evade scrutiny by targeting those who can’t match their financial firepower – like sharks against minnows.
“Facing endless lawsuits and eye-watering legal costs, journalists and campaigners pull the plug on investigations and stories, too afraid to speak out. It leaves corruption hidden and the British public in the dark.”
‘Tip of the iceberg’
Mr Chalk warned the “sinister, chilling effects” of SLAPPs rippled widely to the point where rich individuals and multinational corporations were viewed as “untouchable” by the media and campaigners.
The number of SLAPPs cases has increased from two to 14 in a year, with 538 identified across Europe in the past decade, of which 26 were brought in the UK.
These, however, were the “tip of the iceberg” because authors often backed down and did not publish in the face of legal threats.
“Our courts should be used in the pursuit of justice – not to serve the ends of the crooked and corrupt. As Lord Chancellor and with my responsibility to respect the rule of law, I am determined to put a stop to this brazen abuse of our system,” said Mr Chalk.
The bill will officially define SLAPPs for the first time, so judges can weed out sham cases.
It will cover any legal action intended to restrict the defendant’s right to free speech or harass them, or when the information in their story exposed economic misdeeds.
If such a case came to court, a judge would have the power to dismiss it at an early stage if it was identified as a SLAPP, and where the wealthy individual or company bringing the case had failed to show it had a realistic chance of succeeding at trial.
“If a case does reach [the] court, the judge will have the power to order that the defending journalist is protected from the costs racked up by the claimant, enabling them to participate in the court process without fear of having to cover ruinous costs,” said Mr Chalk.
“This will allow genuine claims to continue, but at the same time, deter those who ramp up costs to cause maximum personal distress to those reporting in the public interest.”