Ontario Passes Law Targeting Bogus Defamation Lawsuits
from the fewer-lawsuits,-more-apologies dept
Good news for Canadians! Well…some of them. This good news only applies to a) Ontario residents who a.1) aren’t vexatious litigants who use BS defamation lawsuits to silence critics.
Bill 52, which changes the Courts of Justice Act, the Libel and Slander Act and the Statutory Powers Procedure Act, received royal assent Nov. 3.
The bill contains a provision that “would allow the courts to quickly identify and deal with lawsuits that unduly restrict free expression in the public interest, minimizing costs and other hardships endured by the defendant,” said Yasir Naqvi, Ontario’s Liberal Community Safety and Correctional Services Minister, last March during a debate on the bill. “It will extend qualified privilege in defamation law under the Libel and Slander Act.”
In other words, it’s an anti-SLAPP law. A handful of states in the US have recognized the damage bogus litigation can do to defendants even when plaintiffs clearly don’t have an actionable case. Laws like these also neutralize the chilling effect of bogus legal threats. Holding frivolous litigants responsible for legal fees tends to greatly reduce the number of questionable cease-and-desist demands issued by would-be litigants.
That such a law would be passed in Canada is somewhat of a coup considering its courts’ bizarre decisions in defamation cases. In some cases, courts have come to rational conclusions (Google is not a “publisher” of defamatory material simply by linking to it in search results). In others, courts opened up brand new avenues of liability, like in the case of blogger Michael Veck, who was ordered to pay $10,000 to the defamed party despite only re-posting what another writer had actually written.
How this law will mesh with inconsistent views on who is or isn’t a responsible party in defamation suits remains to be seen. But for now, it will hopefully prevent this sort of thing from reoccuring.
During a debate in the legislature, Progressive Conservative MPP Sylvia Jones recounted a case in British Columbia where a person sought a permit to convert forested land into farmland. A neighbour objected over concerns “about a possible negative impact on the streams that flowed through his land,” she said.
The township decided “that it needed more time to measure the environmental impact of the application,” noted Jones, MPP for Dufferin-Caledon.
“The claimant sued the defendant, the organization which she was involved with and another individual, claiming $13 million in damages against all three,” she said. “The claim against the defendant herself was for $5.5 million.”
A judge determined “that the claimant had provided no evidence of his allegations against the defendant,” Jones noted, but the defendant’s legal costs were more than $20,000.
Unfortunately, the law doesn’t appear to be quite as robust as some other anti-SLAPP laws we’ve seen. There is a fee-shifting provision, but the law is strictly limited to matters of “public interest,” which means a motion to dismiss under this law will be more difficult to get granted should the court decide the allegedly libelous statements do not pertain to public interest matters.
That being said, most bogus defamation suits tend to brought by people who are public figures to some degree, so this should result in a few potential litigants deciding they’re better off fighting speech with speech, rather than with legal letterhead and court filings.