The UK has announced plans to ‘arm’ court cases by Russian oligarchs and powerful elites as a way to silence critics and protect themselves from scrutiny.

Dominic Raab, Deputy Prime Minister and Secretary of Justice, will make proposals on Thursday to protect free speech and prevent wealthy corporations and businessmen from using the courts in England and Wales to bring libel cases known as Strategic Lawsuits. against Public Participation (SLAPPs).

MEPs have expressed concern that litigants with deep pockets, including Russian oligarchs, have used the threat of legal action to stifle free speech and discourage media scrutiny over their financial affairs as publishers skyrocket legal action. incur costs to defend a lawsuit, even if it has little or no merit.

Tory MP David Davis told the House of Commons in January that fears of defamation lawsuits dubbed “lawfare” are having a “horrifying effect” on the free press and that the English justice system has been used by “those with nefarious intentions” to “grow British threaten, intimidate and instill the fear of God on journalists, citizens, officials and media organizations.”

“Some newspapers are hesitant to cover certain topics, such as the influence of Russian oligarchs, for fear of expensive lawsuits,” Davis told MPs.

Catherine Belton to speak in the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee on Tuesday

Writer Catherine Belton speaks to the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee on Tuesday ©

Catherine Belton, author of Putin’s People, a book detailing the rise of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and her publisher HarperCollins were sued last year by four Russian oligarchs, including Roman Abramovich, now placed under sanctions, and the Russian state. -run company Rosneft. The lawsuits were later settled or withdrawn.

Belton, a former Financial Times journalist who now works for Reuters, testified before the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee on Tuesday, saying the lawsuits had cost the publisher £1.5 million to defend and £5 million in legal fees. could cost if the cases had gone to court.

Raab will indicate on Thursday that the proposals are intended to protect the free press and ensure that the super-wealthy cannot “arm” lawsuits to end scrutiny. “The government will not tolerate Russian oligarchs and other corrupt elites abusing the British courts to muzzle those who shine a light on their misdeeds.”

The government is exploring several reform options, including an amendment to the Defamation Act 2013 to strengthen public interest defenses, which protect publishers when their reporting is in the public interest.

Other options being considered include limiting the legal costs that litigants can recover in lawsuits, allowing judges to dismiss false claims at an earlier stage in court proceedings, and issuing court orders to prevent people from filing repeated lawsuits.

Raab has launched a call for evidence running until May 19, with ministers to announce next steps for reform after comments have been considered.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in a statement: “For the oligarchs and super-rich who can afford these skyrocketing costs, the threat of legal action had become a new kind of judicial process. We must end its chilling effect.”

Dawn Alford, executive director of the Society of Editors, welcomed the consultation and said SLAPPs had a “chilling effect” on public interest journalism and “are a serious threat to media freedom”.

Michelle Stanistreet, general secretary of the National Union of Journalists, said the union would welcome measures to ensure that media “no longer faces excessive costs and willful intimidation by wealthy litigants with the deepest pockets”.

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