What Are SLAPPs?
Strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs) are civil actions with little merit advanced with the intent of stifling participation in public policy and decision-making. Most SLAPPs succeed in silencing opposition because public interest groups and ordinary citizens do not have the money to fight the claim in court.
A lawsuit against someone practicing civil disobedience is not a SLAPP. SLAPPs are lawsuits aimed at silencing lawful forms of public participation, such as starting a petition, or posting information on the Internet.
How do they Operate?
Typically a SLAPP filer will attempt to bring a range of torts against members of a public interest group, or even the group itself. Some of the more common torts include: interference with economic interests, defamation, interference with contractual relations, conspiracy, trespass, and nuisance.
How Should I Respond?
Being sued is always a serious matter, even if you feel the claim has no merit. Consult with a lawyer to gain a full understanding of your legal position and options. Free legal information can be obtained through West Coast Environmental Law, the Environmental Law Centre, Sierra Legal Defence Fund and a half-hour consultation with a lawyer can be arranged through the BC Branch of the Canadian Bar Association for $10.
Won't The Law Protect Me?
As the law stands now, there are certain protections that exist, though they are far from being perfect. The Rules of Court allow for dismissal of claims before they get to trial under Rule 19(24) on the grounds that:
- It discloses no reasonable claim or defence;
- It is unnecessary, scandalous, frivolous or vexatious;
- It may prejudice, embarrass or delay the fair trial or hearing of the proceeding; and
- It is otherwise an abuse of the process of the court.
Unfortunately the courts have been very reluctant to use this Rule to dismiss cases outright, reserving it only for the most extreme cases. Judges are likely to consider all other options before considering a stay of proceedings.
There has been significant debate as to whether the Charter provides any protection for SLAPP targets. Generally the Charter does not apply to disputes between private parties. However, recent case law states that the common law must develop in line with Charter values, including freedom of expression. Debate continues, on what protection the Charter might offer to SLAPP targets.
There is some recognition that the Courts are moving in the direction of addressing the issue of SLAPPs. The case of Fraser v. Saanich was the first time that a judge in Canada explicitly recognized a case as bearing the hallmarks of a SLAPP.
There Ought To Be A Law
The most effective way to reduce the chilling effects of SLAPPs can be accomplished through legislative reform. Twenty US states have already passed legislation addressing SLAPPs. BC had passed the Protection of Public Participation Act, an Act that provided some protection for SLAPP targets. Unfortunately the current Liberal government, upon taking office, immediately repealed the Act. For citizens and community groups to be fully protected from the chilling effects of SLAPPs, strong legislation needs to be passed.