Changing UK law on SLAPPS - strategic lawsuits against public participation

Any law designed to deal with SLAPPs must account for the wide and growing range of SLAPP victims, says Dr Peter Coe.

Pile of newspapers on a table

Undoubtedly SLAPPs are a problem that need to be tackled, not just in the UK, but in Europe, and further afield. However, in tackling this problem we need to take account of the following issues.

Firstly, SLAPPs do not just impact mainstream journalists and the broadcast media: they are used against NGOs, charities, pressure groups, environmentalists, academics, lawyers, the judiciary, and citizen journalists, among others. Consequently, any law designed to deal with SLAPPs must account for the wide and growing range of SLAPP victims.

Secondly, if a law is introduced it must recognise that the SLAPPs that make it to court are just the tip of the iceberg. What makes the situation challenging is the fact that the mere threat of litigation is often enough to prevent the SLAPP victim from continuing ‘the public participation’. Therefore, the legal action does not proceed any further than a strategic ‘threat’. For these claimants they may know that, if taken further, they have very little or no chance of ‘winning’ their claim and receiving damages. That is not their objective. Rather, their objective is to use the threat strategically to scare the victim into not, for example, publishing an article.

Finally, any law that is introduced to tackle SLAPPs must be appropriately balanced with other laws that protect the rights of claimants. We must not create a law that prevents legitimate and meritorious claimants from being able to pursue a cause of action that could, for example, protect and vindicate their reputation, or protect their privacy, because it wrongly categorises them as being a SLAPP litigant. This could create a slippery slope to irresponsible public participation, and to a situation where although some SLAPPs will be prevented, we may inadvertently deter legitimate claims and undermine other, equally important, rights of citizens.

Notes for editors

  • Dr Peter Coe is an Associate Professor at Birmingham Law School. His main research interests are the changing nature of journalism, and how this impacts free speech, press freedom and regulation, and the concepts of privacy and reputation; defamation, including the protection of corporate reputation; and media power and plurality, the role the media plays within society and its impact on democracy.
  • In 2022 Dr Coe was appointed by the Council of Europe as an independent member of the Council’s Expert Committee on Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs). He has given expert evidence to the UK Government Justice Select Committee on SLAPPs and has advised and worked with the Ministry of Justice, charities, NGOs and other organisations on various reform proposals relating to this type of litigation. He has also advised the Information Commissioner’s Office on the development of its draft journalism code of practice. During 2021-2022, upon invitation from the International Academy of Comparative Law and British Association of Comparative Law, he is acting as the United Kingdom’s National Rapporteur on Freedom of Speech and the Regulation of Fake News
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