Lawsuits aimed at forcing individuals or organizations out of public processes should be legislated to extinction, one advocacy group says.
Environmental Defence sent a letter to the premier last week calling for an end to so-called SLAPPs—Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation. A classic SLAPP suit involves “a crippling financial penalty,” it is “aimed at a citizens’ group” and is “trumpeted in the media,” said Environment Defence executive director Rick Smith.
 Such legal action often comprises lawsuits for defamation or conspiracy to harm industry interests, as well as applications for costs before the Ontario Municipal Board and other tribunals. Smith noted that while some defamation claims may be legitimate, legislation can be written to account for such cases. Anti-SLAPP legislation recently enacted in Quebec “allows a judge to take a look at the hallmarks of the case in question and to compare them against the characteristics of a SLAPP suit and to toss out the suit at an early stage if it becomes clear that it’s a SLAPP suit,” Smith told NRU.
 Environmental Defence has charged that such lawsuits have been employed in the Big Bay Point lakeside resort case involving the Geranium Corporation and residents’ groups opposed to the proposed development. Environmental Defence was granted intervener status with regard to Geranium’s application to the OMB for $3.6 million in costs against the Innisfil District Association, Gilbert’s LLP and firm solicitors Tim Gilbert and David Donnelly.
 Donnelly notes that “successful defamation claims are exceedingly rare,” citing a general tendency among legislators and the public to protect free speech. A proposal to provide protection against such lawsuits is being developed. It includes a reverse-onus principle, in which the organization seeking the legal action must prove that the claim has substance. The second principle would require all regulatory approval and public consultation processes put on hold while litigation is pending. This is intended to discourage lawsuits intended to delay or otherwise hinder opposition to a project or development. “In the context of opposing development, it’s well accepted that these SLAPP suits are a tactic that are used to discourage public participation in the process,” Donnelly said. “The purpose of using the tactic is to make citizens incur legal fees, to intimidate them and…push them out of the process.”