Posted on October 12, 2011 (updated: October 12, 2011)

B.C. developer ordered to pay for failed defamation suit against local conservation group

VANCOUVER — In an important ruling that affirms the public’s right to raise concerns about environmental protection, a B.C. judge has ordered a developer to pay all costs associated with a failed defamation suit that silenced opposition to a proposed project.

The Glen Valley Watersheds Society (GVWS), a local conservation group based in Langley, B.C., has been awarded special costs, or all expenses associated with the failed lawsuit. The case was dismissed in May after Ecojustice, Canada’s leading non-profit using the law to protect the environment, successfully argued that developer Robin Scory had no evidence to back his claims the group had defamed him over a proposal to deposit a large amount of fill on his land.

The ruling is believed to be one of only a few in Canada where a judge has both dismissed and awarded special costs in a suit that effectively silenced public discussion of an environmental issue. Special costs awards are usually reserved for litigants who have engaged in unnecessary, scandalous, or reprehensible conduct deserving of rebuke from the Courts.

“An order for special costs acts as a deterrent to litigants whose purpose is to interfere with the democratic process,” the ruling read. “Public participation and dissent is an important part of our democratic system.”

The ruling is an important affirmation of Canadians’ right to speak out on behalf of the environment and be protected from strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs), said Ecojustice staff lawyer Jennifer Agnolin. SLAPPs are legal proceedings that have the principal effect of silencing public discussion on issues of public significance.

“Today’s costs ruling underscores the rights of local citizens to speak out against projects that will harm their local environment without the risk of being sued,” Agnolin said. “It’s also a reminder that lawsuits aimed at suppressing public comment about environmental impacts aren’t going to be tolerated in Canada.”

What’s unfortunate, Agnolin pointed out, is that these cases – which are often insurmountably expensive for small groups to defend – usually hinder important public discussion about conservation and environmental protection.

The judge’s ruling seemed to concur.

“[T]he claimant’s lawsuit achieved one of the recognized purposes of SLAPP litigation,” the ruling read. “It effectively silenced the respondents’ public opposition to the claimant’s permit application.”

Mr. Scory, of Langley, B.C., launched the $5.5 million suit last year after GVWS opposed his application over fears the fill would erode into fish-bearing streams. When the project was put on hold for further review, Mr. Scory sued the GVWS and two citizens for speaking out against the project, claiming they had, among other things, defamed him.

The judge’s decision in May, however, ruled that the Society’s public statements about what could happen to the environment were not defamatory statements, but were “opinions on a matter of public interest.”

The GVWS was one of three defendants in this case. It appeared alongside Sian Krannitz, who is a member of GVWS and was represented separately. Today’s ruling applies to both Ms. Krannitz and the GVWS. The final defendant, Jack DeWitte, had his case struck and was awarded special costs in July.

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