Unmuzzle the critics [lawsuits against public participation]

Posted on June 4, 2010 in Inclusion Debates

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TheStar.com – Opinion/Editorial
Published On Fri Jun 04 2010

Residents trying to protect natural areas or oppose development in their neighbourhoods have often faced a lopsided battle against developers with deep pockets.

A more recent development, though, tilts the balance so far it risks undermining the public’s right to participate in the planning process. Residents who fight developments increasingly fear they’ll be bankrupted if the proponent retaliates by suing them for legal costs.

That’s why the province appointed an expert panel last week to outline legislation to stop “lawsuits from being used to silence critics by imposing long and costly court processes on them.” This is a welcome departure from the government’s previous position that SLAPP suits — an acronym for Strategic Lawsuits Against Pubic Participation — were not a problem.

Appointing an expert panel, however, should not be used as an excuse to further delay the necessary remedy. The panel was given a generous September deadline for its report. The government should be prepared to introduce legislation soon after.

This is not a new field. In fact, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath introduced an anti-SLAPP private member’s bill in 2008. Quebec and half the American states already have anti-SLAPP laws, which generally provide judges with more discretion to throw out cases deemed to be attempts to stifle public participation.

By moving quickly to introduce anti-SLAPP legislation, the government would send an important message that citizen engagement in the planning process is needed and wanted in Ontario.

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