Justice Minister vows to stamp out scourge of ‘gagging laws’ in crackdown on oligarchs and powerful groups trying to silence the Press

Commentary by Alex Chalk: Justice Secretary 

A free Press is the beating heart of any democracy, investigating and reporting in the public interest to hold the powerful to account.

But in recent years, British journalists have been caught up in a savage war on truth, fighting an onslaught of legal claims from ultra-rich people and organisations with secrets to hide.

Take investigative journalists Catherine Belton and Tom Burgis, sued by, respectively, several Russian oligarchs and a Kazakh mining group over books which outlined shady business practices. Both were targeted personally, not just through their publishers – a move calculated to cause maximum distress.

These aren’t isolated cases. Every year, more respected journalists, academics and campaigners are staring down the barrel of strategic lawsuits against public participation, so-called SLAPPs, a deliberate and brutal tactic brought by corrupt elites to silence critics and shut down public debate.

Often used by kleptocrats and cronies of Vladimir Putin, SLAPPs abuse our courts and world-renowned defamation and privacy laws, bombarding targets with legal threats on bogus grounds, until – as eye-watering costs rack up – they back down, stories are pulled and investigations shelved.

It leaves corruption and wrongdoing hidden and the British public in the dark. Newspapers, including the Daily Mail, have led the call for change, and this Government has acted.

Last year we brought in reforms to stop SLAPPs related to economic crime, including corruption and embezzlement, in their tracks.

As the media in other countries –like Russia – are muzzled, we’ll stop at nothing to defend free speech, the lifeblood of free societies like ours. 

It says something about our values that we were the first country in the world to tackle SLAPPs at a national level. 

We must be mindful, however, that the scourge of SLAPPs is spreading – from victims of sexual harassment silenced by their abuser, to landlords using heavy-handed tactics to gag tenants suffering with poor conditions in their homes.

So now we are going even further by backing a Bill that will give judges the power to stamp out SLAPPs in whatever form they take. 

Courts will be able to weed out sham claims before they go to full trial and protect defendants from sky-high legal costs.

Commentary by Alex Chalk: Justice Secretary

Commentary by Alex Chalk: Justice Secretary

Caerphilly MP Wayne David is to be commended for bringing his Bill forward. These issues speak to the very health of our democracy and it deserves support from politicians of every stripe.

Reputation matters, and everyone has a right to defend theirs in law – but as Lord Chancellor, I’m clear that the courts should not be weaponised to protect cheats, chancers and the downright criminal.

This Government will always stand up for those who bravely, and for the good of the British public, lift the lid to expose wrongdoing.

To the kleptocrats who wage lawfare in our courts I say this: you have nowhere to hide.

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