B.C. introduces anti-SLAPP legislation to protect public interest debates

The B.C. government has introduced legislation that would prevent lawsuits used to silence critics with unfair or costly legal action.

Bill would safeguard people from strategic lawsuits against public participation

Attorney General David Eby says the bill would ensure the protection of free public debate. (Mike McArthur/CBC)

The B.C. government has introduced legislation that would prevent lawsuits used to silence critics with unfair or costly legal action.

Attorney General David Eby says the bill would ensure the protection of free public debate by safeguarding people from strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPP) suits.

Eby says such lawsuits can limit or prevent criticism over issues of public interest. The legislation was an NDP promise from last year's election campaign.

The proposed law would allow defendants to ask courts to dismiss lawsuits on the grounds they harm the defendant's ability to speak freely on a matter of public interest.

Eby says the proposed law will be debated next fall in the legislature, but could apply to any lawsuits or litigious threats issued in the meantime. 

Earlier this year, former premier Ujjal Dosanjh, former attorney general Wally Oppal and numerous civil rights and environmental groups publicly called on the government to introduce anti-SLAPP legislation.

Stronger than 2001 legislation

The NDP implemented anti-SLAPP legislation during its final year in power the last time it formed government, only for it to be removed shortly after the B.C. Liberals took office in 2001.

But Eby said the new legislation improved on that attempt in several respects.

"Previously, the person who was sued had to show the person that was suing had a bad intent ... It's a very difficult thing to prove, unless you have an email or witness that said that's what their intent was," said the attorney general. 

"[This] shifts it, so the person being sued only needs to show that the effect of the litigation is that their expression on a matter of a public interest is affected."

Josh Paterson, the executive director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, said the law is a model for the rest of Canada.

 "Once it's passed, it will be the model that other provinces should seek to copy," he said. 

"We think it's going to be very effective, and we think it's going to protect British Columbians who want to speak out on matters of public interest."

With files from Megan Thomas