Threatening a libel lawsuit is often called ‘libel chill.’ By design it is intended to shut someone up who is being critical.
On March 29, 2019, after the explosive recording and related documentation from former Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould was released, the Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition released a press statement concerning the Prime Minister’s handling and involvement in what has become known as the SNC-Lavalin scandal or more colloquially on social media as #lavscam.
Within days the PM, Justin Trudeau’s lawyer Julian Porter, QC, dropped a letter on the Opposition Leader Andrew Scheer threatening a libel suit citing 4 paragraphs of the news release which Porter stated, “The Prime Minister supports wide-ranging and vigorous debate on matters of public policy. However, your statement, in its entirety is beyond the pale of fair debate and is libellous of my client personally and in the way of his occupation as Prime Minister.”
Scheer consulted with his lawyers and issued a statement essentially saying “Bring it.”
He even repeated his comments in a press scrum outside the qualified privilege of the House of Commons.
When asked in a similar scrum whether he would respond to Scheer’s challenge, Trudeau said this, “You can’t be lying to Canadians, and I think highlighting that there are consequences — short-term and long-term — when politicians choose to twist the truth and distort reality for Canadians.”
Oh? Was this the same Prime Minister whose story has changed at least five times (by my count) since the story first broke in the Globe & Mail in February?
Since the resignation of his Principal Secretary Gerald Butts, it’s not clear who is advising the Prime Minister. But in trying to use libel chill to shut Scheer up has failed utterly. It also breathed new life into the SNC-Lavalin story at a time when it was just starting to dissipate. One wonders who, if anyone, in the PMO possesses any functioning political antennae? Because with this move it sure isn’t apparent.
The other problem Trudeau has is that legal precedent is not in his favour.
In 1994, the Ironworkers union Local 97 brought a libel lawsuit against Gordon Campbell, then the Leader of the Opposition in British Columbia. The matter was decided in 1997 in the Supreme Court of BC by the Honourable Mr. Justice MacDonald who dismissed the lawsuit brought by the union.
In a like manner Campbell had distributed a press release to the press gallery and that triggered several news stories and opinion columns. In the judgement MacDonald said: “The official opposition (indeed any members an opposition party) and its leader have both a duty and an interest to investigate and expose any impropriety or irregularity in the management of government monies by the government of the day, and to communicate their findings to the electorate. The electorate has a corresponding interest in receiving such information.”
On ‘the surface of things that might suggest any action brought by the Liberal Party of Canada against the Leader of the Opposition would not be successful.
Then there’s the fact that if Trudeau actually brings a lawsuit, he exposes himself, Butts, Michael Wernick, the resigned Clerk of the Privy Council Office to be questioned under oath by lawyers for the Conservatives.
Considering how he has dodged and dived in the House during Question Period, I cannot even conceive any lawyer for the Prime Minister would allow that to happen. Yet, if Trudeau follows up and files a lawsuit that is what will happen in the discovery process long before the matter sees the inside of a courtroom.
It looks more and more by the day this this was merely an attempt at libel chill and it, like all the other defences tried by the Prime Minister has blown up in his face.
Scheer’s challenge, in my opinion, will never be accepted.