The EU's Battle Against SLAPPs: The Crucial Role of Lawyers in Preventing Abuses of Power
Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, commonly known as SLAPPs, are legal actions designed to silence or intimidate individuals or groups who dare to speak out against powerful entities, such as corporations or government bodies. In recent years, SLAPPs have become a growing concern, threatening free speech and civic engagement. Initiated by the assassination of the Maltese journalist and activist Daphne Caruana Galizia who at the time of her death was facing 48 libel cases, the European Union has recognised the need to protect fundamental rights and the rule of law and has proposed a directive to combat SLAPPs. In this article, we will explore the nature of SLAPPs, the importance of the EU directive, and the pivotal role lawyers play in preventing these abusive lawsuits.
SLAPPs are not traditional legal disputes, but rather tools of oppression used by those in power to suppress criticism and dissent. These lawsuits come in various forms, including defamation, copyright infringement, or even alleged violations of trade secrets. The primary purpose of a SLAPP is not to seek justice through the legal system, but to silence individuals or organizations that criticize or challenge the actions of the plaintiff.
SLAPPs are characterized by several key features:
Disproportionate Power Imbalance: SLAPP plaintiffs typically have significantly more resources, both financial and legal, at their disposal compared to the defendants. This imbalance can deter individuals or smaller organizations from defending themselves, even if they have a legitimate case.
Chilling Effect: The main aim of a SLAPP is to create a "chilling effect" on free speech and civic engagement. Potential defendants may self-censor out of fear of being subjected to costly and time-consuming legal battles.
Lack of Merit: SLAPPs often lack legal merit, with the primary purpose being harassment. Plaintiffs may not genuinely believe they have been wronged, and their lawsuits are designed to burden defendants with legal costs and reputational damage.
The EU Directive Against SLAPPs
To address the growing threat posed by SLAPPs, the European Union has proposed a directive aimed at preventing and combating these abusive lawsuits. The directive includes a range of provisions to safeguard the right to freedom of expression and ensure that all EU citizens can engage in public discourse without fear of legal harassment. It provides safeguards against manifestly unfounded or abusive court proceedings in civil matters with cross-border implications brought against natural and legal persons, in particular journalists and human rights defenders, on account of their engagement in public participation.
Some of the key aspects of the directive include:
Definition and Recognition: The directive will provide a clear definition of SLAPPs, making it easier to identify and challenge them.
Early Dismissal: Courts will be empowered to dismiss SLAPP lawsuits at an early stage if they lack legal merit. This will prevent defendants from enduring protracted legal battles.
Cost-Shifting: The directive may include provisions for shifting legal costs to the party bringing the SLAPP if the lawsuit is deemed frivolous or malicious.
Safeguards for Defendants: The directive will provide defendants with specific legal rights and protections, such as access to legal aid and measures to prevent their assets from being seized during the legal proceedings.
Lawyers' Role in Preventing SLAPPs
Lawyers play a crucial role in preventing SLAPPs and safeguarding the fundamental rights of their clients. Here are some keyways in which lawyers can make a difference:
Legal Counselling: Lawyers can provide valuable guidance to individuals and organisations targeted by potential SLAPPs. They can help clients understand their rights and legal options, empowering them to make informed decisions.
Early Intervention: Lawyers can play a pivotal role in identifying and challenging SLAPPs at an early stage. They can file motions to dismiss frivolous lawsuits, forcing the plaintiff to demonstrate the validity of their claims.
Public Awareness: Lawyers can use their legal expertise to raise awareness about the abusive nature of SLAPPs. This can help mobilize public opinion and support for legal reforms, such as the proposed EU directive.
Advocacy: Lawyers can advocate for legislative changes that enhance legal protections against SLAPPs. They can engage with policymakers to ensure that laws are designed to deter the filing of SLAPPs and protect the rights of those who speak out.
Pro Bono Support: Where the local Bar regulations allow, many lawyers offer pro bono legal services to individuals or organizations facing SLAPPs. This ensures that even those with limited financial resources can access legal representation.
SLAPPs are a growing threat to freedom of expression and civic engagement in the European Union and beyond. The proposed EU directive is a significant step in the right direction to combat these abusive lawsuits and protect the rights of individuals and organisations. Lawyers have a critical role to play in preventing SLAPPs by providing legal counsel, challenging frivolous lawsuits, and advocating for legal reforms. With the concerted efforts of legal professionals and the support of the EU directive, the battle against SLAPPs can be won, preserving balance between freedom of speech and access to justice, preserving the fundamental principles of democracy and the rule of law.
The content of this article is valid as at the date of its first publication. It is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter and does not constitute legal advice. We recommend that you seek professional advice on your specific matter before acting on any information provided. For further information or advice, please contact Tonia Antoniou, Partner at our Limassol office by telephone at +357 25363685 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org