UK empowers courts to stop powerful oligarchs from silencing critics

·2-min read
The Rolls Building, which is used by Britain’s High Court, is seen in London

LONDON (Reuters) - Britain on Wednesday set out measures to help its courts stop large businesses and wealthy individuals, including Russian oligarchs, from using the legal system to silence critics.

The measures, announced by Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab, target so-called Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs), which are often used to intimidate journalists and rights advocates with the threat of endless legal action and costs.

British courts will now apply a three-part assessment before allowing a case to progress, while any party facing a suspected SLAPP can apply to have it considered for early dismissal — moves designed to help courts dismiss baseless lawsuits quicker.

The government will also aim to introduce a costs protection scheme to help level the playing field between deep-pocketed claimants and defendents.

"We won't let those bankrolling Putin exploit the UK's legal jurisdiction to muzzle their critics," Raab, who is also justice minister, said in a statement.

He said the reforms would "uphold freedom of speech, end the abuse of our justice system, and defend those who bravely shine a light on corruption".

The National Union of Journalists welcomed the measures as a "significant step" and the Society of Editors said the announcement contained "essential protections".

In recent years, Russian billionaires and large businesses have used London courts to sue British individuals who have published writing crticial of them.

The British High Court in March threw out a libel claim against journalist Tom Burgis brought by Kazakh mining firm Eurasian Natural Resources Corp over a book about global corruption.

Some form of anti-SLAPP legislation already exists in parts of the United States and Canada, while the European Union, where no country has specific safeguards against SLAPPs, proposed a law this year to allow for early dismissal of such cases and put all legal costs on the claimant.

(Reporting by Sachin Ravikumar; editing by William James and Angus MacSwan)

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