Release: Anti-SLAPP legislation must ensure the dignity, safety and equality rights of survivors of gender-based violence, says BC Coalition to Supreme Court of Canada

Today, a coalition of BC anti-violence organizations intervened in Maia Bent, et al. v. Howard Platnick, et al. at the Supreme Court of Canada. The coalition, including Atira Women’s Resource SocietyBattered Women’s Support Services (BWSS)Salal Sexual Violence Support Centre (formerly WAVAW Rape Crisis Centre) and West Coast LEAF, is calling on the Supreme Court of Canada to interpret anti-SLAPP legislation in a way that will empower survivors of gender based violence to report, disclose and seek support without fear of being sued or otherwise silenced by the legal system.

Strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs) are often lawsuits without merit that are brought with the intention of intimidating and silencing individuals. They are of particular concern for survivors of gender based violence, who are currently forced to consider that reporting or disclosing their assault may mean that their perpetrator will cause further trauma by using the SLAPP framework to sue them for defamation. Explicitly recognizing an exemption for survivors in anti-SLAPP legislation would help mitigate this concern.

“Gender based violence is an extremely underreported crime,” says Dalya Israel, Executive Director, Salal Sexual Violence Support Centre. “Indigenous, racialized, trans and gender diverse survivors already face barriers in accessing justice, due to the on-going systemic violence and oppression committed against them. Unfettered SLAPP legislation risks exposing survivors to additional trauma when they are sued, or threatened with lawsuits, for even speaking to family, friends or community members, or reporting their assault in the judicial or quasi-judicial systems.”

In its submissions, the coalition argues that simply the threat of a defamation lawsuit is enough to prevent survivors from speaking out; especially in gender based violence cases where there is already and inherent power imbalance between the wrong-doer and the survivor and a deep mistrust of the legal system as an institution.

“At Atira, we have seen a trend in the use of SLAPP suits to intimidate, silence and punish survivors of gender based violence,” says Janice Abbott, CEO, Atira. “Often it is men with power and legal resources bringing these claims. Gender based violence is epidemic, life-threatening and underreported. SLAPP suits will make it that much harder for survivors of violence to seek safety and justice. We are proposing an anti-SLAPP legal framework that more appropriately accounts for the perspectives and needs of survivors of gender based violence.”

The coalition also argued that the current anti-SLAPP legislation does not protect survivors from being forced to relive their trauma in a defamation case. “The law must evolve to grant protection to survivors of gender based violence from lawsuits aimed at silencing and suppressing their reporting and disclosure of that violence,” says Raji Mangat, Executive Director, West Coast LEAF. “If society is to do better by survivors, we must recognize that the public interest is served when survivors have meaningful access to safety, supports and accountability processes.”

Following their intervention in this case, the coalition will continue to advocate for the safety and well-being of survivors of gender based violence as they navigate the criminal justice system. “Canada has some of the most progressive laws in the world prohibiting a range of gender violence,” says Angela Marie MacDougall, Executive Director, Battered Women’s Support Services. “Lawsuits that intend to censor, intimidate and silence survivors is yet another way enforcement of gender violence laws remains elusive. In the interest of the millions of survivors of gender violence all across Canada, we remain vigilant.”