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SLAPP - Pointes Protection - Public Interest Exemption

. 1704604 Ontario Ltd. v. Pointes Protection Association

In 1704604 Ontario Ltd. v. Pointes Protection Association (SCC, 2020), the leading case on Ontario's SLAPP laws, the Supreme Court of Canada discusses the public interest threshold:
A. Section 137.1(3) — Threshold Burden on the Moving Party

[20] Section 137.1(3) is reproduced for convenience below, with my own emphasis placed on the terms requiring further illumination:

(3) On motion by a person against whom a proceeding is brought, a judge shall, subject to subsection (4), dismiss the proceeding against the person if the person satisfies the judge that the proceeding arises from an expression made by the person that relates to a matter of public interest.

[21] Fundamentally, this is a two-part analysis. The burden is on the moving party to show that (i) the proceeding arises from an expression made by the moving party and that (ii) the expression relates to a matter of public interest. This is a threshold burden, which means that it is necessary for the moving party to meet this burden in order to even proceed to s. 137.1(4) for the ultimate determination of whether the proceeding should be dismissed.

[22] However, while the term “expression” is expressly defined in the statute, other terms are in need of elaboration in order to understand how the moving party can satisfy its threshold burden.

[23] First, what does “satisfies” require? I am in agreement with Doherty J.A. of the Court of Appeal for Ontario that “satisfies” requires the moving party to meet its burden on a balance of probabilities (C.A. reasons, at para. 51). This is in accordance with the jurisprudence interpreting the word “satisfied” (R. v. Topp, 2011 SCC 43, [2011] 3 S.C.R. 119, at paras. 24-25; F.H. v. McDougall, 2008 SCC 53, [2008] 3 S.C.R. 41, at paras. 49 and 53; Shannon v. 1610635 Alberta Inc., 2014 ABCA 393, 588 A.R. 76, at paras. 14-15; R. v. Driscoll (1987), 1987 ABCA 159 (CanLII), 79 A.R. 298, at paras. 17-18). Accordingly, the moving party must be able to demonstrate on a balance of probabilities that (i) the proceeding arises from an expression made by the moving party and that (ii) the expression relates to a matter of public interest.

[24] Second, what does “arises from” require? By definition, “arises from” implies an element of causality. In other words, if a proceeding “arises from” an expression, this must mean that the expression is somehow causally related to the proceeding.[1] What is crucial is that many different types of proceedings can arise from an expression, and the legislative background of s. 137.1 indicates that a broad and liberal interpretation is warranted at the s. 137.1(3) stage of the framework. This means that proceedings arising from an expression are not limited to those directly concerned with expression, such as defamation suits. A good example of a type of proceeding that is not a defamation suit, but that nonetheless arises from an expression and falls within the ambit of s. 137.1(3), is the underlying proceeding here, which is a breach of contract claim premised on an expression made by the defendant (this is explored in further detail in Part IV of these reasons). Indeed, the APR explicitly discouraged the use of the term “SLAPP” in the final legislation in order to avoid narrowly confining the s. 137.1 procedure (para. 22), and the legislature obliged.

[25] Third, what does “expression” mean? The term “expression” is defined broadly in s. 137.1(2) of the CJA itself: “In this section, ‘expression’ means any communication, regardless of whether it is made verbally or non-verbally, whether it is made publicly or privately, and whether or not it is directed at a person or entity.” This is not in need of further clarification, as the text makes it abundantly clear that “expression” is defined expansively.

[26] Fourth, and finally, what does “relates to a matter of public interest” mean? These words should be given a broad and liberal interpretation, consistent with the legislative purpose of s. 137.1(3). Indeed, the APR clearly stated that a “broader test will ensure that the full scope of legitimate participation in public matters is made subject to the special procedure” (at para. 31) and that therefore a “broad scope of protection” is preferable (para. 29).

[27] In Grant v. Torstar Corp., 2009 SCC 61, [2009] 3 S.C.R. 640, this Court considered the question of how public interest in a matter is to be established. While that case concerned the defence of responsible communication to a defamation action, it also involved determining what constitutes a “matter of public interest”. The same principles apply in the present context. The expression should be assessed “as a whole”, and it must be asked whether “some segment of the community would have a genuine interest in receiving information on the subject” (paras. 101-2). While there is “no single ‘test’”, “[t]he public has a genuine stake in knowing about many matters” ranging across a variety of topics (paras. 103 and 106). This Court rejected the “narrow” interpretation of public interest adopted by courts in Australia, New Zealand, and the United States; instead, in Canada, “[t]he democratic interest in such wide-ranging public debate must be reflected in the jurisprudence” (para. 106).

[28] The statutory language used in s. 137.1(3) confirms that “public interest” ought to be given a broad interpretation. Indeed, “public interest” is preceded by the modifier “a matter of”. This is important, as it is not legally relevant whether the expression is desirable or deleterious, valuable or vexatious, or whether it helps or hampers the public interest — there is no qualitative assessment of the expression at this stage. The question is only whether the expression pertains to any matter of public interest, defined broadly. The legislative background confirms that this burden is purposefully not an onerous one.

[29] Nonetheless, expression that relates to a matter of public interest must be distinguished from expression that simply makes reference to something of public interest, or to a matter about which the public is merely curious. Neither of the latter two forms of expression will be sufficient for the moving party to meet its burden under s. 137.1(3) (see Torstar, at para. 102).

[30] Ultimately, the inquiry is a contextual one that is fundamentally asking what the expression is really about. The animating purpose of s. 137.1 should not be forgotten: s. 137.1 was enacted to circumscribe proceedings that adversely affect expression made in relation to matters of public interest, in order to protect that expression and safeguard the fundamental value that is public participation in democracy. If the bar is set too high at s. 137.1(3), the motion judge will never reach the crux of the inquiry that lies in the weighing exercise at s. 137.1(4)(b). Thus, in light of the legislative purpose and background of s. 137.1, it is important to interpret an “expression” that “relates to a matter of public interest” in a generous and expansive fashion.

[31] In conclusion, s. 137.1(3) places a threshold burden on the moving party to show on a balance of probabilities (i) that the underlying proceeding does, in fact, arise from its expression, regardless of the nature of the proceeding, and (ii) that such expression relates to a matter of public interest, defined broadly. To the extent that this burden is met by the moving party, then s. 137.1(4) will be triggered and the burden will shift to the responding party to show that its underlying proceeding should not be dismissed. I proceed to analyze that provision below.


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