On 20 July 2022 the Deputy Prime Minister, Dominic Raab, announced a package of measures designed to tackle the increased use of SLAPPs in the courts of England and Wales.
The package sets out high-level plans for (i) a new mechanism for the early dismissal of SLAPPs; and (ii) a new cost-capping regime to deter powerful actors from silencing critics through protracted and expensive litigation. The announcement follows a Call for Evidence issued in March 2022 which aimed to identify the emerging challenges and concerns presented by the purported appearance of SLAPP-related behaviours in the jurisdiction. The Call for Evidence was directed at all persons with an interest in SLAPPs including the legal profession, media, commercial organisations, and related interest groups.
This article sets out the background to SLAPPs, describes their key characteristics, and explains the legislative and procedural reform options now proposed by the Ministry of Justice ("MoJ") to tackle the problem that they represent.
What is a SLAAP?
At present, there is no legal or statutory definition of SLAPPs, but the term is most often used to describe a form of retaliatory litigation intended to deter freedom of expression. This type of litigation tends to be brought by powerful entities such as lobby groups, corporations, and state organs to target acts of public participation which are of social importance, all with a view to preventing information which is in the public interest from being published. SLAPPs are most routinely deployed against watchdogs, journalists, human rights defenders, and civil society organisations who have an active role in the protection of democracy and the rule of law. Their purpose is to censor, intimidate and silence critics by burdening them with the pressure and costs of litigation. The Call for Evidence was focused on establishing evidence about the use of SLAPPs in England and Wales with the object of, amongst other things, potentially reforming the substantive law of defamation as the primary vehicle for SLAPP cases in the jurisdiction and reforming court procedure, practice and processes.