When big companies faced objections to their proposals in the past few years, they often used legal tactics to silence their critics.
The provincial government is looking into that practice and has formed an advisory panel to suggest possible legislation that will help prevent lawsuits from being used against citizens and citizen groups that are critics of a proposal.
The companies have been using the tactic by imposing long, costly court processes on them. The actions are often called Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation (SLAPP) suits. Companies can regard such actions as a cost of doing business, but a small community group can find them paralyzing.
The new, three-person panel will be chaired by Mayo Moran and also include Brian MacLeod Rogers and Peter Downard. It will provide advice on key issues, including:
– a test for courts to quickly recognize a SLAPP suit;
– appropriate remedies for SLAPP suits;
– appropriate limits to the protection of anti-SLAPP legislation; and
– methods to prevent abuse of any future anti-SLAPP legislation.
The panel will consult with the public and provide advice to the Attorney General by Sept. 30.
Attorney General Chris Bentley said, "The people of Ontario should be able to have their voices heard without fear of abusive litigation. The courts and tribunals should not be used to intimidate or punish people who raise legitimate questions about initiatives that may affect the public interest."
Quebec passed anti-SLAPP legislation in June last year. About half of American states have anti-SLAPP statutes.
And, on April 30, the Uniform Law Conference of Canada adopted a Uniform Abuse of Process Act.
A group called Environmental Defence intervened before the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) in the Big Bay Point, Lake Simcoe, mega-marina cost award application to argue that the developer-initiated cost claim of $3.6-million against the Innisfil District Association (IDA) and its lawyers is highly damaging to the public interest.
Lawyer Clayton Ruby, who represented Environmental Defence, said he suspects the $3.6-million demand was intended to intimidate ordinary citizens.
The Environmental Defence web site states, “According to the Anti-SLAPP Resource Center basin Denver, Colorado, most SLAPPs lose in court. They are not intended to win: their ‘success’ comes from silencing opposition in the public arena.”
Fending off a SLAPP requires an incredible investment of money and time. Given the power imbalance between environmental and citizen groups and vested industrial interests, SLAPPs can engender such incredible anxiety in their targets that they effectively quell dissent.
The NDP had already made the provincial Liberal government aware of the practice. NDP leader Andrea Horvath initiated a private members bill, but it died on the order paper when Premier Dalton McGuinty prorogued the legislature in March.