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High Court slaps down another SLAPP

WE ARE witnessing an increasing trend towards Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs). These are legal actions brought by the very wealthy, which often lack legal merit, against those who irritate them - usually journalists. Fighting them is often just too costly, forcing journalists - or their publishers - to capitulate. See here for background, including recent hearings on the subject by UK Parliamentary Committees; a pledge by the UK government to bring in legislation that would "clamp down" on SLAPPs; and the European Parliament getting on the case.

Here in the UK, the High Court has thrown out another SLAPP. Yevegeny Prigozhin, associated with Vladimir Putin's circle and with the mercenary Wagner Group, brought a defamation action against Elliot Higgins - founder of investigative website Bellingcat.

Matthew Jury represented Bellingcat, and says the case was struck down following the plaintiff's "repeated failure to comply with court orders". He welcomed the fact that these "abusive and meritless proceeds" had been throw out, but regretted that they had been allowed to be brought at all. He also noted that Prigozhin's legal team withdrew without complying with a request for payment on account of legal costs. It may therefore be difficult for Bellingcat to recover costs.

The ability of judges to throw out SLAPPs at the earliest possible stage in the proceedings is important. Doing so prevents the plaintiff forcing the defendant to run up eye-watering legal fees. These are of course the point of most such actions. Proposed legislation that was the subject of a recent consultation would make it easier for judges to strike down SLAPPs at the beginning.

Meanwhile, in the Republic of Ireland, a review of the Defamation Act has been announced, with a view to bringing in anti-SLAPP measures. The Freelance understands that Ireland is considering what would be some of the world's strongest anti-SLAPP legislation, after fears that Dublin has become a "libel capital".

In the US, the Committee for Security and Cooperation in Europe is a Federal government body charged with implementing the 1975 "Helsinki Accords", including their human rights clauses. It held hearings in April on SLAPPs, or "lawfare" as the phenomenon is known in the US. The Committee Chair, Senator Ben Cardin, said: "We have to fortify our system against lawfare… And we hope that we can win this fight."

  • 14 July 2022 We corrected the name of the mercenary group.