The act aims to dismiss suits that silence criticism by threatening publishers, activists and others with legal bills they can’t afford.

By Grant Buckler for Canadian Journalists for Free Expression

The Ontario government has reintroduced its Protection of Public Participation Act, legislation aimed at preventing Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs). The law had been introduced previously but died when a provincial election was called.

The government said the law would create a fast-track review process for lawsuits alleged to be strategic in nature, rather than legitimate defamation claims. This would include the “legal test” that a judge would use to determine quickly whether a case should be dismissed. The court would have to hear a request to dismiss within 60 days.

SLAPPs are used to silence criticism by threatening activists, publishers and others with large legal bills they can’t afford. Environmental Defence, an environmental action organization, said in a statement welcoming Ontario’s move that developers often use them to silence opposition to projects .

If it passes, the legislation will make Ontario only the second province in Canada—after Quebec—with an anti-SLAPP law. In the United States, more than half the states have such laws.

Quebec passed its law early in 2009. Like Ontario’s pending law, it says the courts may make a summary judgment that a lawsuit is an improper use of procedure—that is, a SLAPP—which then shifts the onus to the plaintiff to show that the suit is legitimate. It also allows the court to order the plaintiff to pay all costs.

British Columbia passed an anti-SLAPP law in April 2001, under a New Democratic Party government. The following month, the NDP lost an election, and in August 2001, the new Liberal government repealed B.C.’s Protection of Public Participation Act, arguing that other existing remedies made it unnecessary and that the law was too vague about the grounds on which a court could dismiss a claim.

Anti-SLAPP laws have also been proposed in the legislatures of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and previously in Ontario as private members’ bills but failed to pass.