TORONTO – Environmental Defence, Ecojustice and the Canadian Environmental Law Association (CELA) applauded the McGuinty government’s announcement today that it is creating an expert panel to outline how to protect the public’s engagement in the democratic process from the threat of lawsuits.
Strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs) are lawsuits aimed at silencing public opinion on issues of public concern through the threat of costly legal action. These meritless suits are often framed as, but are not restricted to, defamation claims against citizens who oppose development projects or corporate practices.
The panel is charged with the task of outlining for the government how best to create legislation that will protect citizens from SLAPPs, which are plaguing individuals and community groups across Ontario.
“This is a positive move. SLAPPS are an increasing concern across Ontario and across Canada and are resulting in a real chill on the willingness of citizens to engage in public processes like City Council meetings and the Ontario Municipal Board,” said Dr. Rick Smith, Executive Director of Environmental Defence. “The government’s announcement of this panel is an important acknowledgment of the problem, and the first step to solving it.”
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.
“We see this type of case all too frequently,” said Hugh Wilkins, lawyer for Ecojustice.
“It is promising to see the McGuinty government finally following the lead of other jurisdictions and taking steps to better protect our democratic rights and to stop these abusive uses of the court system.”
“These lawsuits are an improper use of the legal system and meant only to stifle public debate on matters of public interest,” said Ramani Nadarajah, counsel at CELA. “An anti-SLAPP law will counter the chilling impact these lawsuits have had on public participation in the environmental decision-making process and make court processes more fair and efficient.”
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 his last 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 U.S. states that already have such statutes.
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