Lawfare and UK Court System

Published date : 20 January, 2022
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) on securing this fascinating and crucial debate and the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne), who is not currently in his place, on his work to bring it to the House so quickly and persuade others to contribute. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Apsana Begum) and thank her for sharing her very compelling personal testimony about how she has personally been on the receiving end of many of the bullying tactics that we have heard about this afternoon.

The golden thread running through our discussion is that freedom of expression is one of our core values. People should have the freedom to say what they think, to share information and ideas, and to challenge received wisdom and the behaviour of others. It does not come as an unalloyed freedom, however: we place limits on freedom of expression. People are not entirely free of its consequences, nor should they be. We quite rightly allow recourse through our legal systems to those who have been defamed through people’s use of freedom of expression, so that redress may be sought appropriately.

It is often said quite cynically that the Ritz hotel is open to all, just like the law courts. The truth is that, yes, the law courts are open to all, but it can be ruinously expensive to resort to law, whether for the more routine transactions we make in our lifetime or for going to court to seek a remedy for defamation. It is well beyond most people’s reach even if matters do not get to court.

Thankfully, the Scottish courts have never been a very popular destination for libel tourism. There are doubtless many reasons for that, but I suspect that the lower costs of some—I emphasise “some”—Scottish lawyers and the often lower rewards for successful defamation actions have played a role. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the courts in England, which are increasingly becoming the venue for David and Goliath struggles and actions, or simply the threats of actions, that allow the powerful and the wealthy, whether they are from the UK or elsewhere, to silence, intimidate, cow, browbeat and otherwise silence anyone with something to say, with information to share or with criticisms that run counter to the interests of those wealthy and powerful people. London already has a highly unenviable reputation as the launderette for much of the world’s dirty money and, through its burgeoning public relation and public affairs industry and the comparative accessibility of the courts to those with enough money and financial stamina to make use of them, it is sadly also increasingly becoming a launderette for the sullied reputations of individuals and their corporate entities.

The best courts are the ones that serve the population best in terms of accessibility, fairness of process, transparency, consistency and the justice of the outcome. That is the sort of legal system we should be looking to have, rather than simply having the best legal system that money can buy. London is obviously a massive global centre for many things, including culture, finance, politics, diplomacy, business and commerce, and whenever power, money and influence intersect, it is no surprise that attention is focused on that, with people commenting and reporting on it and discussing it in the various public and private forums. It is important that that power, influence and passage of wealth should be scrutinised and held to account.

The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne) spoke earlier about the actions of the Russian state, particularly in the areas from Ukraine to the Baltics. I would hope that, even domestically, we are becoming increasingly aware of the menace and impact of the misinformation and disinformation in that area, all of which aims to mislead, to anger, to influence values and, ultimately, to change behaviour. We might want to apply the same focus to how party political funding is being used to change the nature our debates and some of our democratic choices, but I do not have enough time this afternoon to talk about that, and to do so would be to stray off topic.

Obviously, the antidote to this is openness, truth, the rule of law and having a free flow of information. For the courts to be used as a venue for the vexatious, the speculative and the downright malicious use of the law to hinder that process of the free flow of information simply serves to harm legitimate business interests, to harm democracy, to harm our lives and, ultimately, to harms our ability to live our lives in the manner that we would otherwise choose. That is why this is so important. This afternoon, Members have been able to use parliamentary privilege to highlight many examples of concern, and it was good and useful that that was able to be done, to illustrate for anyone who reads or watches our proceedings the pernicious nature of how the courts and the legal system are being used to silence, intimidate, cow and otherwise get people to vacate the space of public discourse.

The UK Anti-SLAPP Coalition has a number of proposals, some of which have been mentioned in the debate. I would like to highlight three of them. The first seems to be fairly fundamental, and I hope that the Minister will address it directly. Should not an accelerated process be put in place to dispose of SLAPPs at the earliest possible opportunity, so that a judge can take an early decision on the merit or otherwise—let us be honest, in most cases it is otherwise—of these kinds of actions? We should also be looking at what sanctions can be put in place to deter and delegitimise the use of SLAPPs in the courts. Also, we should be looking at what protective measures can be put in place to safeguard individuals and those who act as public watchdogs to protect them from SLAPPs and to ensure that where the legal process advances, they are able to fight back on something approximating to a level playing field. I would not want to be overly prescriptive about that, however, because this is just the start of the debate.

While today’s debate has given us a very useful and necessary opportunity to highlight this issue, the issue requires much more than what each of us has been able to say this afternoon. It requires much more than a Backbench Business debate. It requires the Government to act, and it requires them to do so in a way that sets aside all private interests.

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