By Hugh Wilkins, staff lawyer

This morning I attended an announcement by Attorney-General John Gerretsen about new legislation that will protect Ontarians from lawsuits designed to stifle citizen participation in public decision-making, especially in environmental issues.

Those lawsuits are called SLAPPs, Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation. Some of Ecojustice’s first cases, in the early and mid 1990s, were successful defences of the victims of SLAPPs and we’re pleased to see the government acting on this long-standing issue.

The Globe and Mail has reported that the Ontario government will introduce the legislation this afternoon.

It is getting harder and harder to stand up for the environment. Environmental decision making has always been tilted in favour of development. But now Ontario is also getting plagued with lawsuits aimed at shutting people up as well. These lawsuits aim to keep people from getting involved in community meetings. They’re preventing people from standing up for the environment. Ontarians have a right to have their say regarding harmful development. Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (‘SLAPPs’) aim to silence Ontarians.

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.

These suits are generally meritless defamation actions. They are brought against citizens who – due to the stress and cost of defending themselves – are coerced into sitting down and not speaking up. Given the choice of having to defend oneself in court or stopping community engagement, the decision is easy for most people. They stop engaging. Even if the suit has no merit, you still need to get a lawyer and spend huge amounts of time and money, not to mention the stress of going to court.

Activities that attract SLAPPs are ones like citizens reporting of environmental violations, filing complaints with government agencies, contacting the media, speaking at public meetings, participating at hearings before administrative tribunals or engaging in public campaigns. It is not the strength of the case, but the threat of onerous and expensive legal proceedings which makes SLAPPs so harmfully effective. They often require enormous resources to defend against.

The Environmental Commissioner of Ontario has called on the Government to take action. The Association of Municipalities of Ontario has called for action. The Canadian Bar Association of Ontario has called for action. Even the Attorney General’s own Expert Panel on SLAPPs has called for the Ontario Government to enact anti-SLAPP legislation.

The Attorney General’s Expert Panel recommended the enactment of legislation which covers a broad range of public participation activities, includes an effective early dismissal mechanism, and incorporates SLAPP disincentives.

We agree. Working with the Canadian Environmental Law Association (CELA) andEnvironmental Defence Canada, we are calling on Ontarians to speak up. Urge the Government to outlaw SLAPPs.

If you believe Ontarians have the right to speak up about developments that could impact their health and the environment, show your support and sign this petition (Update: Sorry, the petition is now closed).

Together, we can stand up for the environment. Let’s put a halt to SLAPPs.