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Advocate urges P.E.I. to draft anti-SLAPP legislation, in light of suit filed by developer

Developer Tim Banks is suing the Environmental Coalition of P.E.I. after the group filed an appeal with IRAC questioning the provincial government's decision to grant a development permit to build on land Banks owns in Greenwich.  (Kerry Campbell/CBC - image credit)
Developer Tim Banks is suing the Environmental Coalition of P.E.I. after the group filed an appeal with IRAC questioning the provincial government's decision to grant a development permit to build on land Banks owns in Greenwich. (Kerry Campbell/CBC - image credit)

The director of the Centre for Free Expression is joining a call for the P.E.I. government to protect Islanders from legal actions designed to silence them from speaking out on matters of public interest.

James Turk told CBC's Island Morning that he believes a prominent developer's lawsuit against the Environmental Coalition of P.E.I. amounts to a SLAPP, an acronym for "strategic lawsuit against public participation."

Developer Tim Banks is suing the coalition and three other defendants over what his court filings describe as a conspiracy to "impede and confound" his efforts to develop or sell land he owns in the middle of a P.E.I. National Park site at Greenwich.

Turk, whose institution is based at Toronto Metropolitan University (formerly Ryerson), said SLAPPs are an "abusive use" of the court process to force the people being sued to give up their cause.

James Turk, director of the Centre for Free Expression at Toronto Metropolitan University, says the result of the mandate letter appeal will affect the future of access to information in Ontario.
James Turk, director of the Centre for Free Expression at Toronto Metropolitan University, says the result of the mandate letter appeal will affect the future of access to information in Ontario.

James Turk, director of the Centre for Free Expression at Toronto Metropolitan University, says strategic lawsuit against public participation, or SLAPPs, are intended to silence or intimidate critics. (Zoom)

"A SLAPP suit is essentially an attempt to use legal procedure to silence a critic or someone whose views you don't like with the kind of lawsuit that the person being sued would probably win if they had enough money to go through the court process… but typically they don't," he said.

"Most people affected by SLAPP suits are people who are never sued."

ECOPEI filed an appeal with the Island Regulatory and Appeals Commission (IRAC) last August that questioned the province's decision to grant Banks a development permit to build on land he owns in Greenwich.

Two months later, Banks filed a statement of claim naming ECOPEI and others, including a representative of Island Nature Trust.

The suit alleges the defendants "conspired with each other to slander Mr. Banks' title to the subject properties and took direct action to actively impede and confound Mr. Banks' efforts to develop and/or sell the subject properties."

Tim Banks, CEO of the APM Group,
Tim Banks, CEO of the APM Group,

'I have a right to build on that property,' Banks told CBC News in August, speaking of the Greenwich site. 'The province approved it… and at the end of the day, that's what's going to happen.' (Tony Davis/CBC)

Banks is seeking an undisclosed amount of general damages along with punitive, exemplary and aggravated damages.

In its statement of defence, ECOPEI denies the allegations, calling Banks' claim "an abuse of process, and an improper use of civil litigation to intimidate and harass a non-profit public interest organization."

B.C. and Ontario have anti-SLAPP laws

Turk said P.E.I. should follow the lead of provinces like Ontario and B.C., along with dozens of U.S. states, in enacting anti-SLAPP legislation.

That would compel the person or group that brings a lawsuit to satisfy a judge that the suit has substantial merit and that there is no valid defence against its accusations.

If the suit is dismissed, defendants can recover 100 per cent of their court costs.

"It protects the integrity of the judicial system and it doesn't allow the legal system to be used to silence people inappropriately," Turk said. "Democracy is undermined if people are inappropriately silenced from saying things the public should know about."

Turk is joining ECOPEI's annual general meeting virtually Wednesday night. The meeting takes place at Beaconsfield's Carriage House in Charlottetown at 6:30 p.m.