A SLAPP in the face

A civil liberties group and prominent figures in the legal community are calling on British Columbia's attorney general to help stop lawsuits that stifle public participation.

The B.C. Civil Liberties Association has sent an open letter to Attorney General David Eby urging him to bring in effective legislation against what are known as strategic lawsuits against public participation, or SLAPP.

Fifteen legal heavyweights have signed on to the letter, including two former Supreme Court of Canada justices, a former chief justice of B.C.'s provincial court, former B.C. premier Ujjal Dosanjh, and Wally Opal, a former B.C. attorney general and B.C. Appeal Court judge.

The letter says the so-called SLAPP lawsuits deter people or groups from speaking out by unfairly targeting them with legal action and exposing them to what are described as "onerous financial and emotional costs."

British Columbia briefly had anti-SLAPP legislation in 2001 under Dosanjh's former New Democrat government, but it was repealed that same year, soon after the Liberals took office.

The letter urges the B.C. government to follow Ontario's example and adopt a law that provides for speedy review of potentially abusive suits, while protecting those that have merit.

Oppal says the sole reason for SLAPP suits is to "censor public opinion, to intimidate people (and) to silence critics."

"We don't expect the government to stop all the presses and put this on the priority schedule, but on the other hand, it is something that needs to be done, and we expect that they will," Oppal says in an interview.

The letter says the legal experts signed on because they want to make B.C.'s justice system strong and protect it from abuse.

"The justice system must be duly resourced and there is no question that it is costly. The remedy we are urging here is not costly, and indeed, is likely to bring cost savings in properly preserving limited judicial resources," the letter says.

B.C. Attorney General David Eby said Thursday that his government is committed to introducing legislation on lawsuits that unduly limit expression on matters of public interest.

"British Columbians should have the right to participate freely in public debates without fear of retribution," he said in a statement.

"We are currently considering the means of ensuring that such legislation will be as fair and effective as possible."

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