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First ‘Anti-SLAPP’ laws proposed

MP’s have the chance to change the law this week to protect journalists and whistleblowers from wealthy oligarchs misusing English courts to silence them.  An amendment tabled to the Economic Crime Bill by the Labour MP, Liam Byrne, who sits on the Bill Committee, would empower a judge to dismiss legal cases brought against journalists designed simply to rack up unaffordable legal bills to deter them from writing their stories.  English courts have seen several high profile cases this year in which wealthy oligarchs and firms have tried to stop journalists with the threat of huge legal costs. The tactic known as Strategic Legal Action Against Public Participants or SLAPPs has been largely outlawed in the United States.  The Washington Post journalist, Catherine Belton, the FT’s Tom Burgiss and the Guardian writer Carole Cadwalladr all ultimately won their cases against Roman Abramovich, Eurasian Natural Resources Corporation and Aaron Banks respectively but only after months of court proceedings facing the risk of a fortune in legal costs.  After Liam Byrne and David David brought the issue to the floor of the Commons in January, ministers agreed to act to change the law and empower judges to dismiss legal action clearly designed to intimate journalists and publishers with legal costs. But ministers have not yet provided a timeframe for when their proposals will reach the Commons.  The publication of Byrne’s amendment to the Economic Crime Bill comes as a coalition of campaign groups publish a model UK Anti-SLAPP Law, developed in consultation with leading media lawyers and industry experts. The model law provides for robust protection against SLAPPs, building upon the framework proposed by the Ministry of Justice in July, adding to pressure on the Government to set out a hard timetable for their plans.  Liam Byrne said; “It is simply a scandal that English courts, once renowned as sanctuary of justice are now infamous as arenas of silence where some of the richest people on earth are trying to silence journalists who are simply doing their job, hunting for the truth exposing fraud, money laundering and sanction busting. This vital amendment isn’t everything that needs to be done. But it’s vital first step in protecting those trying to expose the economic crime for which London has become notorious.” David Davis MP said; “Some of the world’s most powerful oligarchs are waging Lawfare on British journalists and writers, in an attempt to terrify them into silence. What’s worse, British law firms and British courts are facilitating it. A healthy democracy relies on us having the freedom to criticise the powers that be, yet that freedom is being eroded. We must now act to protect our most precious values against those who are doing them so much harm.” Susan Coughtrie, Deputy Director of the Foreign Policy Centre, co-chair of the UK Anti-SLAPP Coalition said; “While not all SLAPP cases are linked to economic crime, it is clear that those with deep pockets lined with dirty money have strong motivations to shut down any public scrutiny of their wrongdoing. It is crucial that our legal system is not left open to this type of abuse – and that information that is vital for law enforcement agencies to act quickly and effectively to address wrongdoing is not shut down by weaponised lawsuits.” Ends.  Notes The Anti-SLAPP coalition is launching a model UK Anti-SLAPP Law at the House of Commons on Tuesday evening.  Liam Byrne who is hosting the event is a member of the Economic Crime Bill Committee. His amendment to the Bill is here:  To move the following Clause– “Disclosure of information in the public interest likely to be relevant to the investigation of economic crime (1)  It is a defence to an action based on the disclosure or publication of information for the defendant to show that— (a)  the disclosure or publication complained of was likely to be relevant to the investigation of an economic crime, and (b) the defendant reasonably believed that the disclosure or publication complained of was likely to be relevant to the investigation of an economic crime. (2)  Subject to subsection (3), in determining whether the defendant has shown the matters mentioned in subsection (1), the court must have regard to all the circumstances of the case. (3)  In determining whether it was reasonable for the defendant to believe that the disclosure or publication complained of was likely to be relevant to the investigation of an economic crime, the court must make such allowance for editorial judgement as it considers appropriate. (4) For the avoidance of doubt, the defence under this section may be relied upon irrespective of whether the statement complained of is a statement of fact or a statement of opinion.” To move the following Clause– “Economic crime: power to strike out statement of case for abuse of process The court may strike out the whole or part of any statement of case which can be reasonably understood as having the purpose of concealing, or preventing disclosure or publication of, any information likely to be relevant to the investigation of an economic crime. For more imformation contact Liam’s Parliamentary Researcher on or on 07399 154078 Other press enquiries to or on 07543 467392


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