The Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill was given royal assent on 26 October 2023 and is now the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Act 2023 (the Act). Earlier this year, we explored the proposed amendments to the Act, its potential benefits and pitfalls and raised some important questions about the operation of the proposed amendments.
The Act introduces several legal mechanisms which provide UK authorities with unprecedented powers to target organised criminals and others seeking to abuse the UK’s open economy. One such way the Act intends to stop what the UK government has called “dirty Russian money” (See: Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill - GOV.UK) from silencing critics on defamation and privacy grounds and preventing the publication of information in the public interest is by providing powers to judges at an early stage to dismiss lawsuits that relate to economic crime. For the first time in English law, the Act defines SLAPPs as providing a cost protection scheme to defendants if a SLAPP is not thrown out and proceeds to trial.
The early dismissal process is based on two tests. The first is whether a case is a SLAPP and the second is whether the case has a reasonable chance of being successful. The onus will therefore be on the complainant to prove that their case has merit, which they must do so at the very early stages of a case and well before trial.
In addition to the new laws, the UK Government has introduced a SLAPP taskforce which has the stated aim of driving forward the government’s agenda to make sure appropriate protections exist for journalists who investigate and publish stories in the public interest. The taskforce’s aim is to bring together “major players” from the media and legal sectors - including the Society of Editors, The National Union of Journalists and the Law Society of England and Wales. However, concerns have been raised that the taskforce currently lacks participation from individuals and organisations which represent the views of the profession, particularly media lawyers who act for defamation and privacy claimants. The recently formed Society of Media Lawyers has called for their participation in these discussions to ensure a fair and balanced representation of views.
Despite Courts now having the power to throw out cases involving economic crime at an early stage, critics seem unconvinced that the new legislation goes far enough given it is limited to cases involving economic crime only. The director of the Foreign Police Centre has said that SLAPPs can be used to shut down scrutiny of any topic in the public interest, and so to address this issue, a standalone anti-SLAPP law is sorely needed.
There is no denying that legal measures and steps should be taken to reduce abusive litigation of any sort. However, it is still a matter for fierce debate how prevalent abusive litigation of this sort actually is. Future legal discourse and action on the issue of SLAPPs should include a fine balancing act between the government’s aim to limit abusive litigation and the duties and responsibilities of freedom of expression, as against the right of access to justice for victims of unlawful misreporting and press intrusion, as well as the importance of preventing press abuse. The only way this will happen is if the voices from both sides of the fence are part of the debate.
Whether you are facing defamation in the press, by an individual, harassment, blackmail, mishandling of your private data, pre-publication threats, or you wish to gain top legal advice on such matters, reach out to our leading reputation and privacy team today.