UK empowers courts to stop powerful oligarchs from silencing critics

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LONDON, July 20 (Reuters) – Britain announced measures on Wednesday to help its courts prevent big business and wealthy individuals, including Russian oligarchs, from using the court system to silence critics.

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

UK courts will now apply a three-part assessment before allowing a case to move forward, while any party facing a suspected SLAPP can request that they be considered for early dismissal – measures designed to help the courts dismiss baseless lawsuits more quickly.

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The government will also aim to introduce a cost protection regime to help level the playing field between plaintiffs and deep-pocketed defendants.

“We will not let those who fund Putin exploit the legal jurisdiction of the UK to muzzle their critics,” Raab, who is also the justice minister, said in a statement.

He said the reforms would “maintain freedom of expression, end abuses of our justice system and defend those who bravely shine the light on corruption”.

The National Union of Journalists hailed the measures as a “significant step” and the Society of Publishers said the announcement contained “essential protections”.

In recent years, Russian billionaires and big business have used the courts of London to sue British individuals who have posted reviews about them.

The British High Court in March dismissed a libel suit against journalist Tom Burgis filed by Kazakh mining company Eurasian Natural Resources Corp over a book on global corruption.

Some form of anti-gag legislation already exists in parts of the United States and Canada, while the European Union, where no country has specific safeguards against gags, this year proposed legislation to allow the early dismissal of such cases and put all court costs on the plaintiff. Read more

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Reporting by Sachin Ravikumar; edited by William James and Angus MacSwan

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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