UK courts to stop Russian oligarchs 'abusing' system to gag critics

Reforms include meritless claims being thrown out more quickly and a cap on costs

The Royal Courts of Justice and the High Court and Court of Appeal of England and Wales in London. Alamy
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New reforms outlined by the UK government would give courts the power to stop Russian oligarchs “abusing” the UK legal system to silence critics.

Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab will on Wednesday set out the measures, which take aim at so-called Strategic Lawsuits against Public Participation, or Slapps.

Courts will be able to throw out meritless claims more quickly and a cap will be placed on costs to prevent the super-rich from “bullying” journalists with the threat of expensive litigation, the Ministry of Justice said.

Slapps usually involve wealthy elites using legal action to try to stop journalists or campaigners from exposing wrongdoing under defamation and privacy laws.

The targets often receive a “barrage of aggressive legal letters” and retract stories before the cases make it to court for fear of the sky-high costs involved, the ministry said.

“We won’t let those bankrolling [Russian President Vladimir] Putin exploit the UK’s legal jurisdiction to muzzle their critics," Mr Raab said.

“So today, I’m announcing reforms to uphold freedom of speech, end the abuse of our justice system and defend those who bravely shine a light on corruption.”

Under the reforms, courts will be able to more quickly dismiss baseless claims, which they will identify through a three-part check.

The test will assess whether the case is against activity in the public interest, such as a fraud investigation, whether there was evidence of abuse of process, such as threatening correspondence, and whether the case has sufficient merit.

The new cost protection scheme is set to “level the playing field between wealthy claimants with deep pockets and defendants” by shielding defendants from crippling costs, the ministry said.

The government will “set out the design of the scheme and the precise level of cost caps in due course”, the ministry said.

The High Court this year dismissed a libel claim brought by Kazakh mining giant Eurasian Natural Resources against Financial Times journalist Tom Burgis about passages in his book Kleptopia: How Dirty Money is Conquering the World.

“Publication of these proposals is a significant step in tackling the deployment of Slapps and other forms of lawfare designed to stymie journalistic investigations," said Michelle Stanistreet, general secretary of the National Union of Journalists.

“Abuse of the law by the sly and mighty, who deeply resent the legitimate work of the media in calling them to account, is a scourge which must be eradicated."

Dawn Alford, executive director of the Society of Editors, said: “The introduction of a new mechanism to allow the courts to throw out meritless cases more quickly and a cap on costs are essential protections that should deter the wealthy from using the threat of expensive litigation to silence their critics, and should allow journalists and others the ability to fulfil their roles as the public’s watchdog without bullying or intimidation."

Updated: July 20, 2022, 7:01 AM