Toronto – Environmental groups are applauding the strong recommendations put forward by the Ontario government’s expert advisory panel aimed at protecting citizens from strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs). They now call on the McGuinty government to deliver a new Anti-SLAPP Act as soon as possible.
SLAPPs are legal proceedings that have the principal effect of silencing public discussion on issues of public significance. They threaten and undermine well-established public participation rights by improperly using the judicial system to dissuade citizens from taking part in public decision-making processes by creating an unfounded fear of legal consequences or adverse costs.
“A strong anti-SLAPP law would stop abuses of the justice system and protect the voices of citizens on important public interest issues,” said Ecojustice staff lawyer Hugh Wilkins. “The recommendations of the advisory panel lay the groundwork for strong protection. Now the government needs to turn those recommendations into law.”
Public demand for an Anti-SLAPP Act has garnered support in the past year, with more than 60 organizations recently signing a letter to Premier McGuinty requesting protection from SLAPP suits. Many of the organizations have experienced legal threats and bullying from oppositional interests in their various efforts to protect the environment, human health or community priorities.
Ecojustice and the Canadian Environmental Law Association (CELA) have released their recommendations to the panel in their report Breaking the Silence.
Both groups, along with Environmental Defence, have called for a strong anti-SLAPP law that would guarantee a right to public participation in matters of public interest; allow courts to review and dismiss SLAPP suits expeditiously; and provide strong disincentives against launching SLAPPs in the form of cost awards and punitive damages.
“Right now, those with deep pockets can use SLAPPs to silence opposition even if their claims have no merit,” said Ramani Nadarajah, from the Canadian Environmental Law Association Counsel. “This will change when the Ontario government implements the panel’s recommendation.”
Environmental Commissioner of Ontario, Gord Miller, has also spoken out about the intimidation and chill these lawsuits have on community groups calling them a “contagion” in a recent annual report. On a local level, over 65 municipalities, including Toronto, Oakville, Aurora and Hamilton, have passed their own motions to request the province enact an Anti-SLAPP law. If Ontario enacts an Anti-SLAPP Act, it will be joining Quebec and many US states that already have such statutes.
“The experts have spoken. An Anti-SLAPP law has broad support right across the province. It’s time for the McGuinty government to deliver. We need the new law introduced and passed as soon as the legislature reconvenes in 2011,” concluded Dr. Rick Smith, executive director of Environmental Defence.