A new group made up of 57 prominent practitioners, The Society of Media Lawyers (“TSML”), has written to the President of the Law Society questioning the stance which it has taken on the issue of “SLAPPs”.
TSML, whose members include solicitors and barristers, says that it wishes “to add fairness and balance, as well as our perspective, to the discussions surrounding media law in order to try to ensure that they are properly informed by the facts”.
In its letter TSML states that its members act for both claimants and defendants in defamation and privacy cases. They are concerned that a false narrative has been advanced by certain elements of the media and pressure groups which grossly exaggerates the “SLAPP” problem and unfairly criticises media lawyers.
TSML acknowledges that abusive litigation occasionally takes place but states that, in their collective experience this is rare and no more common in media law than in any other area. It points out that the SRA’s thematic review found no evidence of abuse.
The letter points out that, although there is a spectrum of views in the profession, the Law Society’s public statements have enthusiastically supported the Government/media line by accepting, as an established fact, that there is a “SLAPP issue requiring a legislative response”. It gives a number of examples of public statements made by the Law Society on the issue.
TSML draws attention to the complete absence of credible independent evidence to support the Law Society’s position on SLAPPs. There has been a bald statement that there were 14 SLAPPs in the UK in 2021: a figure taken without question from the Coalition Against SLAPPs in Europe (‘CASE’). It points out that these 14 cases have never been identified and, in any event, would only represent a tiny proportion of UK defamation and privacy claims.
It is said that the evidence suggests that there is not a significant SLAPP problem in the UK: none have been identified in the case law or by the SRA and no solicitor having been sanctioned in respect of such claims.
TSML says that
“It is the experience of our members that the term SLAPP is being used by certain defendants, journalists and campaigners to attack any actual or threatened defamation claim. Pausing here, Parliament considered the law of defamation a decade ago and codified a number of defences that seek to strike a balance between freedom of expression and protection of reputation, including a statutory public interest defence (the Defamation Act 2013). Stating that the public interest needs to be considered when considering defamation claims/complaints ignores the fact that such a defence already exists and provides considerable protection for journalists who report a prima facie defamatory allegation in a responsible way”.
The letter concludes by asking the Law Society to share its analysis on the evidence of SLAPPs and to agree to support the TSML in having a member appointed to the Civil Procedure Rules Committee and to the DCMS SLAPP Task Force.
A full copy of the letter can be found here. [pdf]