Home / 'Test case' against defamation laws fails in rural dispute

‘Test case’ against defamation laws fails in rural dispute

By Cam Fortems
Published August 1, 2013/ kamloopsnews.ca

A resident of a rural area near Lytton lost a bid to have a defamation suit against her dismissed, the latest salvo in a battle to stop an organic waste facility operating on a farm.

Northwest Organics LP and Northwest Group Properties Inc. purchased ranchland in Botanie Valley several years ago, intending to use a portion of land to recycle organic waste.

Residents protested and hired an environmental consultant. That report, along with flyers titled What is the Truth? and Beware of Half Truths were circulated, making claims about intentions of its owners.

The companies then commenced a defamation suit against Botanie Valley resident Sheila Maguire and several anonymous parties.

Representing Maguire in the bid to dismiss the defamation suit was Jason Gratl, past president of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association.

The defendants argued the defamation action was a so-called SLAPP (strategic litigation against public participation) suit, intended to stifle freedom of speech.

Gratl argued that B.C. Supreme Court civil rules governing lawsuits should conform to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

While Charter arguments apply to government, the defendants argued the rules of the court are a creature of government. Therefore, those rules should recognize freedom of expression and the threats posed by lawsuits intended to stifle free speech.

But in a ruling released this week B.C. Supreme Court Justice John Savage said the action, if successful, would rewrite a series of Supreme Court of Canada decisions around libel.

Courts in this country have not opted to make it more difficult to sue for libel, as it is in the United States. Provincial governments have not created laws to protect freedom of expression between parties that don’t include government.

“In my view, the defendants are proposing a substantive change to the law of defamation, not simply a change in the rules of practice,” Savage wrote.

Savage also said the arguments should be made after a trial, when facts are heard. The defamation claims have yet to be heard in court.

TRU law professor Micah Rankin called the action “a test case.”

“It’s a bit of a flyer . . . I wouldn’t be surprised to see it go to the court of appeal. But it’s costly for people to advance these claims.”

Rankin said better protection for individuals from claims of libel would typically be done by the Supreme Court of Canada or through the legislature, acknowledging SLAPP lawsuits “can be used to silence people.”

Savage said courts may award costs in instances where there is no merit to claims.