Anti-SLAPP legislation is not achieving its goal of providing an early expeditious means of preventing the misuse of the judiciary by litigants who unduly attempt to silence expression related to matters of public interest.
The Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) has said the crux of these motions is the weighing of interests under section 137.1(4)(b) of the Courts of Justice Act. In my view we should get right to this analysis and avoid spending exorbitant amounts of time and money on the merit of defences analysis under s. 137.1(4)(a)(ii).
Ontario and British Columbia have instituted anti-SLAPP regimes, aimed at weeding out SLAPPs that are not in the public interest. Yet these protracted hearings are failing to be the expeditious legal process that was originally envisioned.
To review, in 2020 the SCC described strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs) as: “lawsuits initiated against individuals or organizations that speak out or take a position on an issue of public interest … in a SLAPP, the claim is merely a façade for the plaintiff, who is in fact manipulating the judicial system in order to limit the effectiveness of the opposing party’s speech and deter that party, or other potential interested parties, from participating in public affairs.”
Anti-SLAPPs can be difficult and expensive
The SCC in Pointes Protection correctly described the crux of the legislation to be the weighing of the public interest in protecting the speech in issue against the public interest in permitting the action to proceed. However, getting to this stage of the analysis under the legislation can be difficult and expensive.
Before getting to the weighing exercise, the court must however consider what has been described as the merit tests under the legislation.
The SCC, on one hand, has reminded parties and motion judges that they ought not to take a deep dive into the merits of the claim or defences. Yet that is still happening as a result of the Courts’ conflicting requirement that the merit of the defences, or the lack thereof, be considered.
I’ve done a cursory review of anti-SLAPP motions. The cost awards are often in the $100,000 to $150,000 range, and in one case they exceeded $800,000. Since those awards reflect the amount of time and effort the parties are putting into these motions, this shows how the intent and spirit of the legislation is being thwarted. Forcing a defendant to have to finance a SLAPP motion is in itself a disincentive to speaking out in the public interest.
‘The entire trial [is] being played out in advance’
The insightful comments of Justice Frederick L. Myers of the Ontario Superior of Justice illustrate the failure of the anti-SLAPP regime. In a December 2021 decision he noted: “These motions tend to be complex and expensive proceedings. Although they are not intended to involve a deep dive into the merits or even a detailed review akin to a motion for summary judgment, they usually do represent virtually the entire trial being played out in advance.
“Plaintiffs are usually not willing to leave evidence in their briefcases when they risk their claims being dismissed,” Justice Meyers added. “Defendants similarly want to show that there are no grounds to defeat their defences, that the plaintiff has suffered little if any actual harm, and that the dismissal of the proceeding is the just outcome.”
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Justice Myers then employed an apt sports analogy, noting “despite the Legislature’s intention to create a preliminary hurdle, the process advanced in practice is a more like a marathon”.
Unwarranted anti-SLAPP motions are also taking a toll on our justice system as a whole. Justice Myers talks about how other important legal matters are now being bumped from the court’s hearing list as a result of the 60-day hearing requirement under the anti-SLAPP legislation. Since it was adopted in 2015, by my rough count, there have been more than 150 anti-SLAPP motions brought and almost 50 of those were subject to appeal. So, it is easy to see that the amount of court resources being expended on anti-SLAPP motions is significant.
A suggestion to resolve the issue
Here is one suggestion on how to solve the problem.
In light of the way the SCC has interpreted the legislation, I suggest that the merits-based test related to defences be amended. There are two merit-based tests in the legislation. The first is that the plaintiff satisfy the judge that the claim has “substantial merit.”
The SCC has essentially ignored the word “substantial” and has declared that this merits-based test is satisfied merely by a demonstration that the elements of the tort of defamation are met. A very low threshold. The second merits-based test requires the plaintiff to satisfy the judge that the defences are not valid. Instead of setting the bar on this test similarly low, the court has interpreted this section as requiring an examination of the merits of the defences. This is what is causing, in my opinion, the frustration of the intent of the legislation and such great expense.
My solution is to amend the legislation to clarify that the merits-based test on defences only requires that valid defences be pleaded and that there be some evidence, which if believed, would support the dismissal of the claim. That’s it. Jettison the current requirement of showing in whose favour the defences tend to weigh.
Getting back to the ‘crux’ of the legislation
This would then allow the parties and the motion Judge to focus on what the SCC described as the “crux” of the legislation; namely, the weighing of interests.
In terms of the volume of appeals, this could be abated by the Court of Appeal relying more heavily on the principle of deference to motion judges’ exercise of discretion and refraining from essentially considering matters de novo, which seems to have been the practice in the early cases.
In early January, the SCC granted an appeal of the B.C. Court of Appeal anti-SLAPP decision in Hansman v. Neufel. When the Supreme Court hears this case, I’m hoping it will express their dissatisfaction with the way anti-SLAPP motions are playing out in practice.
This article was published by LegalMatter on February 8, 2022.