Clause 2 - Meaning of “SLAPP” claim

Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:45 am on 8 May 2024.

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Photo of Wayne David Wayne David Shadow Minister (Middle East and North Africa) 9:45, 8 May 2024

I beg to move amendment 1, in clause 2, page 2, line 6, at end insert—

“(aa) the claim relates to an expression or potential expression made or to be made by the defendant which discloses or would disclose information relating to a matter of public interest;”.

This amendment and amendments 3, 4, 8 and 9 re-order themes in the subsection so that the public interest is referred to before freedom of speech.

Photo of Julie Elliott Julie Elliott Labour, Sunderland Central

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 11, in clause 2, page 2, leave out lines 7 to 18 and insert—

“(a) the information that is or would be disclosed by the defendant relates to a matter of public interest;

(b) the claimant’s behaviour in relation to the matters complained of in the claim is such that it is reasonable to conclude that the behaviour has, or is intended to have, the effect of restraining the defendant’s exercise of the right to freedom of speech; and

(c) any of the behaviour of the claimant, including leading up to or alongside the claim, in relation to the matters complained of in the claim is such that it is reasonable to conclude that the behaviour is intended to cause the defendant any other harm or inconvenience beyond that ordinarily encountered in the course of properly conducted litigation.

(1A) In subsection (1)(c) the reference to ‘harm’ includes, but is not limited to, a reference to any of the following—

(a) expense,

(b) alarm,

(c) harassment or distress.”

Amendment 2, in clause 2, page 2, line 8, after “claim” insert

“is such that it is reasonable to conclude that the behaviour”.

This amendment ensures that the condition in subsection (1)(a) is met if the court determines that it is reasonable to conclude that the claimant’s behaviour has or is intended to have the effect in question.

Amendment 3, in clause 2, page 2, line 9, after “exercise” insert

“by that disclosure or potential disclosure”.

See the explanatory statement for amendment 1.

Amendment 4, in clause 2, page 2, line 10, leave out from beginning to “and” in line 11.

See the explanatory statement for amendment 1.

Amendment 5, in clause 2, page 2, line 13, after “claim” insert

“is such that it is reasonable to conclude that the behaviour”.

This amendment ensures that the condition in subsection (1)(c) is met if the court determines that it is reasonable to conclude that the claimant’s behaviour is intended to have the specified effect.

Amendment 6, in clause 2, page 2, line 14, leave out sub-paragraphs (i) to (iii) and insert “any harm or inconvenience”.

This amendment and amendment 7 restate sub-paragraphs (i) to (iii) for the purpose of clarifying the condition in subsection (1)(c).

Amendment 7, in clause 2, page 2, line 18, at end insert—

“(1A) In subsection (1)(c) the reference to “harm” includes (but is not limited to) a reference to any of the following—

(a) expense;

(b) harassment;

(c) alarm;

(d) distress.”

See the explanatory statement for amendment 6.

Amendment 8, in clause 2, page 2, line 20, leave out “or (b)”.

See the explanatory statement for amendment 1.

Amendment 9, in clause 2, page 2, line 23, leave out “(1)(b)” and insert “(1)(aa)”.

See the explanatory statement for amendment 1.

Amendment 10, in clause 2, page 2, line 23, leave out from second “the” to end of line 24 and insert

“matters that are of ‘public interest’ include (but are not limited to) the following—”.

This amendment rephrases the opening words of subsection (3) so as to make it explicit that matters of “public interest” are not limited to the specified matters.

Amendment 12, in clause 2, page 2, at end of line 39 insert—

“(ba) the use of dilatory strategies, excessive disclosure requests, disproportionate or unreasonable pre-action threats, or any refusal without reasonable excuse to resolve the claim through alternative dispute resolution;

(bb) the choice of jurisdiction;

(bc) the use of public relations campaigns to bully, discredit or intimidate the defendant;”.

This amendment sets out a wider context of SLAPPs.

Clause stand part.

Clauses 3 and 4 stand part.

Photo of Wayne David Wayne David Shadow Minister (Middle East and North Africa)

I will turn shortly to amendment 1 and the other amendments in my name, but I will first address the function of clause 2, which creates a statutory definition of what constitutes a SLAPP claim, so that courts can effectively identify such misuses of our justice system. It will mean that a case will be considered a SLAPP if each limb of a three-part test is met: a defendant has had their freedom of speech restrained, the story is a matter of public interest, and the claimant’s behaviour has been harassing, alarming or distressing to the defendant, including by running up inappropriate expense or inconvenience “beyond that ordinarily encountered” in litigation.

Before discussing my amendments, I want to recognise the targeted, constructive efforts by stakeholders who have invested time by providing feedback on the Bill, to ensure that those at risk of SLAPPs receive the backing they need to curtail abusive proceedings in the courts. I am also grateful for the work and support of the Government, who have shown their commitment to cementing the UK’s reputation as a jurisdiction that values free speech and broad public participation.

I will start with amendment 1 and will also speak to amendments 3, 4, 8 and 9, which are consequential to it. In short, amendment 1 seeks more prominently to convey the Bill’s purpose by reordering the first two of the three components of a SLAPP so that public interest is given the primary position in clause 2, ahead of free speech. The amendment does not diminish or undermine the importance of an expression of freedom of speech or the claimant’s misconduct in the identification of a SLAPP. Each of the three components in clause 2 must still be present for a case to be found to be a SLAPP. Public interest considerations are at the heart of SLAPP cases, and amendment 1 reflects that importance. Accordingly, I commend the amendment to the Committee, alongside amendments 3, 4, 8 and 9, which are required for drafting purposes if clause 2 is reordered as proposed.

Amendments 2 and 5 seek to ensure that there is an appropriate degree of objectivity in the intention test when considering the effects a claim has on a defendant’s freedom of speech and the misconduct of the claimant in pursuing the claim. That is achieved by introducing the concept of reasonableness. The amendments will allow the court to consider the claimant’s behaviour in terms of whether it is reasonable to conclude, based on their conduct, that the claimant intended to restrict the defendant’s freedom of speech and to cause harm. Any harm beyond what can be reasonably expected to be incurred in the course of properly conducted litigation—bearing in mind that by its very nature, litigation is stressful and inconvenient—would result in the case being identified as a SLAPP and being struck out.

Photo of Adam Afriyie Adam Afriyie Conservative, Windsor

On a point of clarification: I am not a lawyer either, but under the amendment, if a judge were to determine that a case were a SLAPP and strike it out, could he do so partially? Is there a mechanism by which the claimant can appeal the initial strike-out?

Photo of Wayne David Wayne David Shadow Minister (Middle East and North Africa)

Like the hon. Gentleman, I am not a lawyer—

Photo of Adam Afriyie Adam Afriyie Conservative, Windsor

I apologise for asking the question!

Photo of Wayne David Wayne David Shadow Minister (Middle East and North Africa)

I will seek clarification, as I am a layperson. My understanding is that the judge’s decision is definitive and will achieve the desired effect.

The introduction of reasonableness will give the court a clear ability to draw conclusions about a claimant’s intention from all the objective evidence before it. That evidence will be from both the claimant and the defendant, and its extent will be controlled by the court. The court will also be able to determine the degree to which it is tested, and will therefore be in a proper position to infer from it whether the necessary intention from the claimant is present, so as to warrant the case being found to be a SLAPP. Amendments 2 and 5 will assist courts in ensuring that an objective and fair assessment is made of whether the case is a SLAPP.

Amendments 6 and 7 clarify the misconduct element of the test to decide whether a claim is a SLAPP. They respond to concerns from stakeholders who said that the original formulation of the clause suggested that there is a level of harassment, alarm and distress that is acceptable to pursue as a tactic to cause intimidation in conducting litigation. That was never the intention, and I wish to make that point firmly and very clearly.

The intention of the clause is to isolate claimants who are perpetrating misconduct in the way in which they are pursuing their claim. It will separate those who are using litigation as a weapon from those who have a legitimate grievance and are behaving properly in conducting their case. These amendments will mean that a defendant will be able to assert that, through improper behaviour, a claimant has caused them harm. In making that claim, the defendant will be able to invoke harm of any sort, including but not limited to harm, distress, expense, inconvenience or harassment. I consider that this new formulation will assuage the legitimate concerns raised by stakeholders and parliamentarians alike. It is therefore extremely important.

Photo of David Davis David Davis Conservative, Haltemprice and Howden

In many ways, this goes to the heart of the argument that we have had throughout all this. The truth of the matter is that anybody in receipt of normal judicial action in an ordinary defamation case faces distress and expense. A person who receives a lawyer’s letter at the beginning of such a claim suffers, if not a nervous breakdown, then something quite close to it, so this is quite difficult to elucidate. I know that the hon. Gentleman takes that point.

Photo of Wayne David Wayne David Shadow Minister (Middle East and North Africa)

The right hon. Gentleman makes an extremely important point that gets to the heart of the Bill. Such cases are extremely stressful and cause all manner of feelings, which are clearly indicated here, and often enormous expense. One of the things that is recognised in this Bill is that in many cases that is quite deliberate. SLAPP cases are often designed to cause a maximum amount of distress, alarm and expense to defendants. That is precisely what we want to iron out of the system to introduce an objective fairness, so that cases are really judged on their merits and not on what quite often happens behind the scenes. I consider this new formulation to be much stronger than what we initially had in mind, and it is therefore very important and appropriate. I very much hope that it receives the full support of this Committee.

Finally, amendment 10 seeks to clarify the scope of “public interest” as set out in clause 2(3). That is achieved by amending the language so that it is clear that the list of matters in the “public interest” is not exhaustive. This amendment will assist the court in the identification of SLAPP claims and ensure that all relevant claims can be dealt with under the scope of this Bill. It brings greater clarity to the definition of “public interest” in the Bill and addresses concerns from parliamentarians that the Bill would not achieve its aim of identifying SLAPP claims as currently drafted. I commend amendment 10 to the Committee.

For completeness, I note that clause 3 will amend the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Act 2023 by removing the provisions for SLAPPs that relate to economic crime. Sections 194 and 195 of the ECCTA are no longer required as this Bill’s provisions will capture all SLAPPs, including those that feature an element of economic crime. The measures in this Bill will deal with SLAPPs in the round, and not just those related to economic crime currently contained in the 2023 Act. In other words, this is a holistic approach that encompasses all SLAPPs and should be recognised as such.

Clause 4 sets out the legal jurisdictions to which the provisions will apply and the commencement of this legislation. The Bill applies only to England and Wales, as justice is a devolved matter, and it will be for the Administrations in Scotland and Northern Ireland to consider whether and how they wish to legislate to address the challenges that SLAPPs represent in their own jurisdictions; I very much hope that they will follow our good example. Although the Bill will take effect two months after Royal Assent, it will be implemented in full once the necessary rules of court have been developed by the Civil Procedure Rule Committee; those will come into force through secondary legislation.

On that basis, I commend clause 2, as amended by the amendments in my name, and clauses 3 and 4 to the Committee.

Photo of David Davis David Davis Conservative, Haltemprice and Howden

I have just looked with amusement at the selection list. The grouping of amendments under clause 2 reads:

“1 [David] + 11 [Davis]…10 [David] + 12 [Davis]”

I am not responsible for all of them—the hon. Member for Caerphilly and I are brothers in arms, but not brothers. I agree with every single amendment that he has tabled in his name; they will all improve the Bill. They also demonstrate that the Bill was very flawed before, as indeed was the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill, to which there is also an amendment here. I am afraid that that demonstrates that the Government’s original approach was not as thought-through as it should have been.

The two amendments in my name both seek to do the same thing: to broaden the view of the judge, when they are making a ruling on whether a case is a SLAPP case, to the extrajudicial behaviour outside the court room, included in which is the selection of forum. If someone were to pursue a court case in London rather than in their domestic court, that would be an indication that they were seeking to exploit our laws in pursuit of a SLAPP.

In some ways, the point about extrajudicial action is even more important. It is that the actions taken against the individuals on the receiving end of SLAPPs are intimidatory and bullying in a whole series of extrajudicial ways. I should think everybody on the Committee knows about the cases of Tom Burgis, Catherine Belton and our erstwhile colleague Charlotte Leslie. Intimidatory social media campaigns, threatening phone calls, not-so-subtle surveillance, hacking—the list goes on and on.

For the Committee’s benefit, I have also picked out a couple of other cases that iterate that and show quite how widespread the behaviour is. For example, during the course of a five-year investigation into Wirecard, Dan McCrum, a journalist at the Financial Times, stated that he was subject to

“furious online abuse, hacking, electronic eavesdropping, physical surveillance and some of London’s most expensive lawyers.”

I have another two, which, frankly, are the most chilling of all. The first was a target of legal action brought by a property investment trader, who was the victim of misogynistic harassment. That included a website being launched that smeared her reputation, multiple misogynistic videos uploaded and shared online, the offering of rewards to the claimant’s followers if they contacted her, as well as her details being shared online, presenting her as a sex worker. That led to numerous unsolicited phone calls at her home address. The other person was targeted through a social media channel on Twitter, which exclusively tweeted at the defendant while a legal case was ongoing. We do not know that that was done by the plaintiff, but it was notable that the channel disappeared once there was a settlement.

We also have Clare Rewcastle Brown, the journalist who was instrumental in uncovering the Malaysian 1MDB scandal. She gave evidence to the House of Lords, in which she stressed how much the legal intimidation

“is actually pre-action litigation that people do not hear about.”

She outlined how she was subject to a smear campaign, online harassment and surveillance as a result of her work, on top of many legal threats.

Finally, the International Press Institute has spoken out about how damaging online harassment and smear campaigns are to journalists’ reputations. That is important, because journalists live on their reputation and the public’s trust in them. An assault on that reputation is a strike at the very heart of free speech and a free press in our country.

That is why I have tabled amendments 11 and 12. I do not propose to press them to a vote today, because they are flawed and do not take on board the changes that have taken place since our last meeting with the Department. However, I ask the Department and the Minister to look very hard at them, because I would prefer to table an agreed set of amendments on this matter on Report. I do not think anybody could fail to agree that there is a problem here that the Bill does not explicitly address. It is true that the judge could look outside; however, there is no requirement in the Bill for them to do so. I believe that there should be, because this is in many ways the nastiest element of SLAPPs.

Photo of Apsana Begum Apsana Begum Labour, Poplar and Limehouse

I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly for bringing this important Bill to the House and getting it to this stage. Like many colleagues, I was at the first debate on lawfare in January 2022 and I am now most grateful to serve on this Committee. I also thank campaigners for what they are doing to prevent the misuse of litigation to suppress freedom of speech, including the campaign groups and campaigners working against the use of the law to silence survivors of domestic abuse and violence.

Democratic and press freedoms are fundamental to our rights and to challenging corruption and the abuse of power. That is why I remain concerned that the Bill has been drafted with too much focus on attempting to balance competing interests within the legal profession, instead of protecting public participation and the fundamental rights of free expression and access to a fair trial. Indeed, we know that the Government have been heavily lobbied by—and, as has been mentioned, have had substantial input from—the very lawyers who bring SLAPP claims.

In particular, colleagues will be aware that the Anti-SLAPP Coalition takes issue with the wording of clause 2(1)(c) because it argues that the wording assumes that there is an acceptable level of “harassment, alarm or distress”, and harm, that a claimant can intentionally inflict on a defendant. It also has a narrow scope, focusing only on conduct directly related to litigation, which leaves claimants free to continue with much of the pre-litigation conduct, and abusive behaviour conducted in tandem with litigation, that make SLAPPs so egregious and hard to monitor.

I am minded to agree with campaigners that it must be clear that claimant behaviour that is intended to harass, alarm and distress, and that harms, is combined with other factors in clause (2)(1)(c) indicative of a SLAPP claim, and that there should be no threshold below which this behaviour is acceptable. Likewise, abusive claimant behaviour prior to and alongside the claim itself should be in scope.

I place on the record my support for amendments 2 and 5, which stand in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly, which seek to ensure that a court can reach a conclusion about a claimant’s intent based on a reasonable and more objective interpretation of their behaviour, rather than rather than an overly subjective inquiry into their state of mind. That would retain the test of a claimant’s intention while mitigating the threat of complex, costly and lengthy satellite litigation, which has already been discussed. I am concerned that campaigners and experts are warning that without these amendments, there is a risk that this Bill’s early dismissal mechanism could render the legislation redundant.

As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on domestic violence and abuse, and having had first-hand experience of how SLAPPs can be used to silence women, I want to ensure that we consider the ability of abusers to weaponise litigation. Back in 2021, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression, Irene Khan, warned about gendered censorship taking place around the world. I have also spoken extensively about this issue, and she rightly pointed out that there is currently an imbalance in the system between “his” right to reputation and, usually, “her” right to free speech.

Having spoken extensively about defamation and public interest defences in this regard, I think that we should aim to have a future free from perpetrators being able to abuse the courts and pursue litigation in this way. I therefore support my hon. Friend’s amendment 10 on the definition of “public interest”. It seeks to ensure that the Bill does not privilege certain types of public interest speech and create an unnecessary and problematic hierarchy that could, as I understand it, cut across principles in the Defamation Act 2013 and data protection law, making it harder for defendants to use the full scope of available defences.

Photo of Adam Afriyie Adam Afriyie Conservative, Windsor

I will not keep the Committee too long. I just want to say that I have sat on many Committees in my 19 years here, and I think that this Committee is a testament to the strength of Parliament in scrutinising legislation that clearly we all want to see. It highlights the nuances of differing views on constitution versus freedom of speech versus public interest, so I very much understand the reason for each one of these amendments.

There is a lot of debate around each amendment, but I suspect that actually the Government and pretty much every MP would agree with the intention of all of them. The question is about the precision of how they are delivered. I rise, to be honest, to speak in support of all the amendments in this grouping—not necessarily the precision of them, but the intention behind each and every one. In particular, I speak in favour of amendments 11 and 12, which stand in the name of my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden.

It does seem to me that as MPs, we see all sides of this issue. We see attacks on ourselves from people trying to suppress what we are about to say on the Floor of the House or elsewhere, but we also observe in our local media that the two little journalists stuck in a local regional newspaper are suddenly facing a massive court case if they write something that, to be honest, is in the public interest and fairly innocuous. We can see things from both sides, which is why, particularly in the debate about these amendments, we are all being very gentle in how we approach things: because we know that there are subtleties that we need to address.

However, I am very keen to see that those who have disproportionate power—whether that is financial power, or in business structures, or in access to lawyers—are kept in check when it comes to behaviours that are clearly designed to harass, intimidate, frustrate and frighten people on the receiving end, whether they are local journalists or media, or even, to be honest, mainstream newspapers that may have financial challenges as well, or individuals such as our former colleague Charlotte Leslie, whose life was made an absolute misery. Nobody in any party would want to see or witness that kind of behaviour, no matter which former MP was experiencing it.

This issue needs to be dealt with and I thank the Government for dealing with it. I also thank all hon. Members on this Committee for examining what needs to change. I am very keen on this group of amendments, because they aim to clarify and define more closely what it is we are trying to deal with. The worst kind of legislation is the kind that we have not scrutinised carefully to ensure that when a judge approaches a matter, they have clear directions and a clear understanding of the intention of this House in forming that legislation.

I hope that in Committee and on Report, we will finally get to a resolution on each of the issues that have been raised here, because it is really important that this piece of legislation gets on to the statute books. However, it is equally important that freedom of speech is defended and that the little guy or the little girl in our society—the small media outlets—are protected from deeply wealthy and deeply aggressive litigants.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Labour, Hammersmith

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms Elliott. I can be fairly brief, as harmony appears to have broken out across the Committee. I would not want to disturb that harmony in any way.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Labour, Hammersmith

Well, just a little, maybe.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly on his Bill and particularly on his amendments. They not only clarify the Bill but strengthen it a great deal, especially in relation to the objective test, which, as we discussed at some length on Second Reading, is a necessary change. Without the amendments, the danger is that one of the vices that the Bill seeks to prevent would become apparent in another way—through satellite or preliminary litigation—because we were trying to delve down into what was in the mind of a claimant in the process of bringing a suit. That is a good start.

The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden mentioned pre-litigation risks about actual harassment of defendants and other ways of manipulating the court processes. I find amendment 12, which he tabled, attractive from that point of view. It certainly is the case, and libel cases are the best example, that whole swathes of defendants’ lives can be taken up simply by the manipulation of the litigation process.

Above all, and most commonly, this is an issue about costs. We can all imagine what Tom Burgis, Catherine Belton and Charlotte Leslie felt when they received those letters. It is not just about the allegations or the possible reputational damage; it is about the real risk of bankruptcy, or at least having to pay out huge sums of money. It is just common sense that that is bound to suppress free expression and hobble investigative journalism. If the Bill goes some way towards preventing what is commonly described as the chilling effect of such litigation, it will be doing an extremely good job.

It is also true that the use of the justice system to pursue SLAPP claims undermines the rule of law and undermines confidence in the judiciary. There is a question as to whether courts have been manipulated. They have stuck to the rules and dealt with the law as it is, but have been unable to do much about claimants who bring cases for malicious and devious purposes. I often agree with the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden, my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill and my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North; I do not agree as often with the Government or the Ministry of Justice, so that is a great pleasure.

I will leave one question hanging in the air that the Minister may want to address. The Government are clearly committed not just to the Bill as it stood on Second Reading, but to the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly, which I understand they will support. Can he therefore explain why, at the very same time, the Government are legislating in the Media Bill to repeal section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013?

For every Tom Burgis, there is a Kate and Gerry McCann; for every Catherine Belton, there is a Christopher Jefferies; for every Charlotte Leslie, there is a family like Milly Dowler’s. However the courts are used to bully or prosecute with ulterior motives designed to silence defendants or make their lives unbearable, the same can be done by any bullying organisation. It can be done by media conglomerates as much as by oligarchs. I see that as a contradiction in the Government’s approach, but I am sure the Minister can explain it fully in his response.

Photo of Liam Byrne Liam Byrne Chair, Business and Trade Committee, Chair, Business and Trade Committee, Chair, Business and Trade Sub-Committee on National Security and Investment, Chair, Business and Trade Sub-Committee on National Security and Investment 10:15, 8 May 2024

I have just two points to make on this excellent group. First, I wholeheartedly support the amendments to clause 2 that my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly proposes. The Opposition amendments to the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Act 2023 were very much a tactical strike on the statute book: here was a Bill that gave us the chance to ensure that we had road-tested similar provisions. Given the narrow scope of that Bill, it was possible to sketch only amendments that tackled economic crime at their core, so I am glad that this Bill gives us the opportunity to go well beyond that and take the holistic approach that my hon. Friend set out in his excellent opening speech.

My second point, which perhaps the Minister or my hon. Friend will address, relates to the concerns that have been well set out by the UK Anti-SLAPP Coalition. It gives me the chance to congratulate the coalition on its extraordinary and steadfast work; I am not sure that we would have arrived at quite the same speed without it. The coalition usefully highlights concerns about clause 2(1)(c), the drafting of which appears to suggest that there is a threshold for the “harassment, alarm or distress”—harm, if you like—that can be permitted. That is not something that we would want to support in this place. I realise that it is difficult to get the balance right, but my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse has spoken eloquently about the risks of creating a space in which there is a level of distress and harm that is permitted. It would be useful for both Front Benchers to crystallise how that issue will be tackled by the amendments in this group.

Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Shadow Minister (Justice)

As we have heard, consensus has broken out. It is all very pleasant, unlike some issues that I have debated with the Minister in the past. I welcome amendments 1, 3, 4, 8 and 9, which will reorder the themes so that public interest is referred to before freedom of speech. My hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly has more than adequately outlined the necessity of the clauses, and I support his efforts to improve the Bill’s application.

I am also pleased to see amendments 2 and 5, which will ensure a more objective approach to the identification of intent. As we have heard, requiring the courts to engage in a subjective inquiry into the mind of a claimant or defendant would create uncertainty and might be practically and evidentially difficult to assess. These requirements could create satellite litigation and uncertainty at an early stage and might have the unwanted effect of introducing further delay and driving up costs.

The definition in the Bill should, at a minimum, include an objective element so that it relates to claims concerning disclosures that are or would be made on matters of genuine public interest. That would make the text similar to section 4(1)(a) of the Defamation Act 2013. I know that the amendments have the backing of the Law Society and the UK Anti-SLAPP Coalition. The News Media Association, a member of the coalition, says that the amendment is required to allow a judge to define a case as a SLAPP based on a reasonable interpretation of a claimant’s actions, rather than a complex inquiry into a claimant’s state of mind. It agrees that the latter would result in complex, time-consuming and costly legal wrangling that would defeat the object of a Bill intended to dismiss egregious SLAPP cases swiftly.

Amendments 6 and 7 restate sub-paragraphs (i) to (iii) of clause 2 for the purpose of clarifying the condition in subsection (1)(c). They have our support.

Clause 2(3) attempts to set out a definition of “public interest” to help with identifying SLAPP cases. That includes matters such as illegality, false statements, public health and safety, the climate or the environment, or investigations by a public body. Concerns have been raised to me that the original drafting lacks clarity and risks creating problems for implementation; it also proves contradictory in relation to the Defamation Act 2013. I therefore support my hon. Friend’s amendment 10, which will go some way towards addressing those issues by making it clear that the list set out in the clause is not exhaustive, and that other matters not specified in the Bill can be considered by the court to be of public interest.

It would not be appropriate to privilege certain types of public interest speech and create an unnecessary and problematic hierarchy. Without amendment 10, the examples in the definition of “public interest” in clause 2(3) would cut across principles in the Defamation Act and in data protection law, making it harder for defendants to use the full scope of defences available at trial. That is because it would naturally be difficult for a court to decide that an article was not in the public interest under the Bill’s narrow definition but then take a different course at trial. We are happy to support amendment 10.

Photo of Mike Freer Mike Freer Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

If I may, I will address a few points raised by hon. Members and then make some final remarks.

On the issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor about whether it is possible to strike out all or part of the claim or seek an appeal, he is absolutely correct.

I am grateful that my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden is not pressing his amendments. I reiterate that I am happy to discuss his remaining concerns about the Bill and how it needs to be tweaked before the remaining stages.

On the issue raised by the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse, the Department has engaged extensively with the UK Anti-SLAPP Coalition. It is fair to say that we can never get all stakeholders entirely happy, but I am advised that the coalition is broadly supportive of the Bill. On the issue that she raised about behaviour, particularly with respect to domestic violence issues, of course it is not expected that the Bill seeks to facilitate behaviour, as she has outlined, in domestic violence issues. She has specific concerns as to how she believes domestic violence is being facilitated by elements of the Bill. I am more than happy to meet her to go through them in more detail, but we do not believe those concerns will be borne out by the Bill.

On the issue raised by the hon. Member for Hammersmith, I confess that I am not exactly au fait with the Media Bill, but I will be more than happy to write to him about his specific points.

On the points that the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill raised about clause 2(1)(c), of course all litigation causes alarm, but as paragraph 31 of the explanatory notes states, the

“behaviour must be intended to cause the defendant harassment, alarm, distress, expense, or any other harm or inconvenience, beyond that which would ordinarily be encountered in properly conducted litigation.”

That broadens it. Of course when someone gets litigation or letters from a lawyer, people are naturally alarmed or distressed, but what is the intent? To what extent does that behaviour meet the criteria and those descriptors in paragraph 31 of the explanatory notes, which clarify the behaviour we are seeking to curtail?

I reiterate that the Bill will protect the individuals and organisations that engage in important public debate. It will advance accountability for those who would obfuscate their dealings, and it will ensure that speaking out in the public interest is given the support that it deserves. The Bill will safeguard our courts, ensuring that our highly regarded legal system is protected from the insidious abuse of process that could undermine its reputation of achieving justice for all.

The amendments tabled to clause 2 by the hon. Member for Caerphilly will ensure that public interest is kept at the heart of the issues, as its suppression is a key hallmark of SLAPP cases. The introduction of the reasonableness component of the test will ensure that inappropriate behaviour and weaponised processes are identified and tackled at the earliest possible opportunity. The centring of the behaviour of the claimant will ensure that it is abundantly clear to those who would use SLAPPs that they cannot act poorly and remain unchecked and unchallenged, whether that behaviour happens in the courtroom, via privately funded surveillance or a social media campaign to undermine the credibility of an author, academic or whistleblower. The Government are content fully to support all 10 of the hon. Gentleman’s amendments, which we believe will strengthen the Bill.

With respect to amendment 12, tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden, the Government laud his intention to ensure that the Bill is properly drafted so that it captures all SLAPPs. I hope I have reassured him that the matters he raises are in many respects already covered by the existing draft of the Bill for a number of reasons. I repeat my offer to meet him to reassure him further, if necessary.

Photo of David Davis David Davis Conservative, Haltemprice and Howden

To be clear, I do not think that the Bill, as drafted, meets the requirements. I will not press my amendments to a vote, because they are flawed, but I will table something on Report to deal with the issue. I hope that we can agree on what it should be.

Photo of Mike Freer Mike Freer Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

I thank my right hon. Friend and reiterate my offer to sit down with him and go through this in detail, whether for me to reassure him that the Bill meets his objectives or for him to convince me that we need to go further.

Clause 2(1)(c), to which amendment 12 would add, is broad: “any” behaviour can be considered by the court as evidence of misconduct. Subsections (4) and (5) give examples, but are certainly not intended to be exhaustive lists. Furthermore, many matters in the amendment are covered by clause 2(4). For example, the reference to

“disproportionate reaction to the matters complained of in the claim” will cover excessive disclosure requests and dilatory strategies, as well as questions regarding the choice of jurisdiction.

The Government expressly support the amendments of the hon. Member for Caerphilly to clause 2 and the reasonableness test. We will not support the amendments that my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden has tabled but not moved, as we believe that materially they cover the same ground. However, I repeat my offer to meet and see where we can agree.

I reiterate my thanks to the hon. Member for Caerphilly for promoting this important Bill, and I confirm the Government’s continuing support for it. The Bill will ensure that all those who speak out against corruption, hold the powerful to account and guard our freedoms through raising their voice are protected.

Photo of Wayne David Wayne David Shadow Minister (Middle East and North Africa)

I thank hon. Members for their contributions. The hon. Member for Windsor is absolutely correct that what we have experienced today and previously highlights the fact that this is a good process. There should be more private Members’ Bills and more time allocated to them in the procedures of this House. That is an important point to make.

I am extremely grateful for the knowledgeable contributions from hon. Members, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith and my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill. I have very much relied on their experience and good advice in the passage of the Bill so far. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse for her excellent contribution about her personal experience, which shows clearly why the Bill is required.

It is worth noting that the Bill has changed remarkably during its passage. The amendments to which we are in the process of agreeing will substantially strengthen the legislation. A number of stakeholders have been intimately engaged in the process. The Anti-SLAPP Coalition, to which several hon. Members have referred, has done a remarkable job and many of its suggestions have been directly incorporated into the legislation.

May I particularly thank the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden for his amendments? He noted that it looks rather strange to see the names “David” and “Davis” together on the amendment paper. The only conclusion is that we must both have Welsh blood in our veins—there must be some commonality that transcends our party political differences. His amendments show that his careful consideration has enhanced our process enormously.

On amendment 11, I wholly agree in principle with the right hon. Gentleman’s proposal to give the public interest element of clause 2 greater prominence. Indeed, that is why I have tabled amendments 1, 3, 4, 8 and 9, which have the same aim. In view of the specific language in clause 2(1)(a) and (b), I consider that the formulation used in amendments 1, 3, 4, 8 and 9 will better achieve that purpose.

The right hon. Gentleman’s amendment 12 was drafted to expand the categories of conduct that show wrongful behaviour on the part of the claimant, in turn expanding the misconduct element of the test to establish whether a case is a SLAPP. The current drafting was purposely designed on the basis of evidence gathered, from stakeholders across the spectrum of views, in the Ministry of Justice’s call for evidence. The list is non-exhaustive and allows the court to take into consideration any matter that may be relevant. On that basis, I believe the categories of wrongful behaviour under clause 2 to be more than sufficient to identify whether the behaviour of the claimant amounts to misconduct.

I thank all hon. Members again for their contributions and their participation. I particularly thank the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden for tabling his amendments but not pressing them, which has ensured an excellent debate this morning. I look forward to cross-party unanimity being expressed clearly at the end of our deliberations.

Amendment 1 agreed to.

Amendments made: 2, in clause 2, page 2, line 8, after “claim” insert

“is such that it is reasonable to conclude that the behaviour”.

This amendment ensures that the condition in subsection (1)(a) is met if the court determines that it is reasonable to conclude that the claimant’s behaviour has or is intended to have the effect in question.

Amendment 3, in clause 2, page 2, line 9, after “exercise” insert

“by that disclosure or potential disclosure”.

See the explanatory statement for amendment 1.

Amendment 4, in clause 2, page 2, line 10, leave out from beginning to “and” in line 11.

See the explanatory statement for amendment 1.

Amendment 5, in clause 2, page 2, line 13, after “claim” insert

“is such that it is reasonable to conclude that the behaviour”.

This amendment ensures that the condition in subsection (1)(c) is met if the court determines that it is reasonable to conclude that the claimant’s behaviour is intended to have the specified effect.

Amendment 6, in clause 2, page 2, line 14, leave out sub-paragraphs (i) to (iii) and insert “any harm or inconvenience”.

This amendment and amendment 7 restate sub-paragraphs (i) to (iii) for the purpose of clarifying the condition in subsection (1)(c).

Amendment 7, in clause 2, page 2, line 18, at end insert—

“(1A) In subsection (1)(c) the reference to ‘harm’ includes (but is not limited to) a reference to any of the following—

(a) expense;

(b) harassment;

(c) alarm;

(d) distress.”

See the explanatory statement for amendment 6.

Amendment 8, in clause 2, page 2, line 20, leave out “or (b)”.

See the explanatory statement for amendment 1.

Amendment 9, in clause 2, page 2, line 23, leave out “(1)(b)” and insert “(1)(aa)”.

See the explanatory statement for amendment 1.

Amendment 10, in clause 2, page 2, line 23, leave out from second “the” to end of line 24 and insert

“matters that are of ‘public interest’ include (but are not limited to) the following—”.—(Wayne David.)

This amendment rephrases the opening words of subsection (3) so as to make it explicit that matters of “public interest” are not limited to the specified matters.

Clause 2, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 3 and 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Bill, as amended, to be reported.

Committee rose.