Citizen Action Monitor

Ontario Gov. Act slaps down SLAPP lawsuits against citizens’ free speech on public matters

Act targets individuals or businesses that use strategic lawsuits to silence critics.

No 1555 Posted by fw, January 2, 2016

“Ontario has passed the Protection of Public Participation Act, 2015, which is aimed at stopping strategic lawsuits. Upon Royal Assent, it will apply to lawsuits that began on or after December 1, 2014, when the legislation was introduced. A strategic lawsuit, commonly referred to as a SLAPP (Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation), is a tactic used by an individual or company to silence critics. Plaintiffs (the parties starting the lawsuit) use these lawsuits against weaker opponents in the hope that they will exhaust their finances and energy in defending themselves. As a result, other critics may refrain from speaking out for fear of the same retribution. Most strategic lawsuits are filed in court as claims of defamation (libel or slander), and are often dropped before proceeding to trial.” —Ontario Government Newsroom

Hats off to the Ontario Attorney General for the Protection of Public Participation Act, 2015. The act will put an end to the kinds of frivolous lawsuits that Greenpeace Canada was threatened with in 2013 when Resolute Forest Products filed a $7-million lawsuit in an attempt to silence public discussion on the company’s operations in Canada’s ‘Endangered Forests.”

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Protection of Public Participation Act by Ontario Government Newsroom, October 28, 2015

Ontario has passed the Protection of Public Participation Act, 2015, which is aimed at stopping strategic lawsuits. Upon Royal Assent, it will apply to lawsuits that began on or after December 1, 2014, when the legislation was introduced.

Strategic Lawsuits

A strategic lawsuit, commonly referred to as a SLAPP (Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation), is a tactic used by an individual or company to silence critics. Plaintiffs (the parties starting the lawsuit) use these lawsuits against weaker opponents in the hope that they will exhaust their finances and energy in defending themselves. As a result, other critics may refrain from speaking out for fear of the same retribution. Most strategic lawsuits are filed in court as claims of defamation (libel or slander), and are often dropped before proceeding to trial.

How the Protection of Public Participation Act Helps Ontarians

The Protection of Public Participation Act, 2015 helps protect the rights of Ontario residents to speak out on public issues without the fear of being faced with a strategic lawsuit by allowing the courts to use a fast-track process to identify and dismiss strategic lawsuits quickly.

In addition, the act makes a number of improvements to the system to:

  • Protect individuals from being liable for defamation when their concerns are reported to the public through a third party–such as a blogger or a reporter
  • Make the adjudicative tribunal process less time consuming and costly by allowing parties to make written submissions about legal costs instead of having to argue about them in person.

The fast-track review process will allow a defendant to ask the courts to dismiss a case if it unnecessarily restricts their freedom of speech. In response, the courts will apply a test to identify whether a lawsuit is strategic or legitimate and determine whether or not it should be allowed to proceed. The test sets out three important questions:

  1. Is the lawsuit about a matter of public interest?
  2. Does the case of the plaintiff have substantial merit?
  3. Is the harm suffered, or likely to be suffered, by the plaintiff serious enough to justify stopping public expression?

Depending on the answers to these questions, the case may be dismissed with minimal time or expense to the parties while also saving valuable court and public resources.

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