With the Ontario government reintroducing the protection of public participation act, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and Pro Bono Law Ontario are partnering up to help those who may be targets of SLAPPs — strategic litigation against public participation.
“Because the government announced the reintroduction of the legislation, we thought it was a good time to let people know what we’re doing,” says Cara Zwibel, director of the fundamental freedoms program at the CCLA.
While they’re just getting the program up and running, it will essentially provide an intake process for potential pro bono or reduced-cost legal assistance to those targeted by SLAPPs. They already have a roster of lawyers willing to help.
“We’ve started with a small group. It’s six or eight lawyers that we’ve got,” says Zwibel, who’s hoping for a more formal launch of the program in January.
“If the individual is eligible, the lawyer considers whether it’s something they can take on,” she adds.
The assistance may involve something as simple as a letter to respond to an initial SLAPP threat all the way up to full legal representation, if merited and the case reaches that point.
“It’s really to just try and level things off for those who are the targets of these lawsuits,” says Zwibel. She adds the lawyer could also decide the lawsuit is legitimate.
SLAPPs are a tool sometimes used by developers or companies against individuals who protest projects, often in environmental and municipal planning disputes. The new legislation would provide for a fast-track process in which a judge would have the power to apply a legal test to determine if the case could proceed. The court would hear a request to dismiss a case within 60 days.
It’s the Ontario government’s latest attempt at passing a bill to address SLAPPs after previous efforts languished under the former minority government. While many states in the U.S. have anti-SLAPP legislation, Quebec is the only province in Canada to have it. British Columbia had it up until 2001 but it was repealed.
While this project is timely given the recent announcement about reviving the bill, Zwibel says SLAPPs are an issue the CCLA has been working on for some time.
“Even if the legislation doesn’t pass, I think this is something we’ll continue to pursue,” she says, noting the CCLA had been advocating for legislation to address SLAPPs.
And while the legislation has met with some resistance, particularly from some northern Ontario resource companies and municipalities, Zwibel believes the concerns about the courts dismissing worthy claims are “misplaced.” The law, she says, isn’t a licence to slander as it merely creates a process to deal with potential SLAPPs so defendants don’t go bankrupt in the face of large claims.
“We’re very supportive of the legislation,” she says.
Read more on the reintroduction of SLAPP legislation in this Canadian Lawyer InHouse article.