A judge has awarded Doug Ford $130,000 in legal costs from a former provincial police chief who had unsuccessfully tried to sue the Ontario Premier.
Former Ontario Provincial Police deputy commissioner Brad Blair launched a defamation suit against Mr. Ford two years ago. He sought millions in damages, alleging the Premier harmed his reputation during a public war of words over politics and policing.
In December, an Ontario Superior Court judge ruled that Mr. Blair’s claim had to be tossed out of court because it prevented the Premier from speaking freely.
The success of Mr. Ford’s argument – which is known in legal circles as an “anti-SLAPP " defence – then left the matter of who would pay the Premier’s costs.
On Feb. 1, Ontario Superior Court Justice Edward Belobaba released a follow-up ruling saying Mr. Blair should bear a significant portion of Mr. Ford’s $600,000 legal bill. “My conclusion is that the appropriate costs award is in the range of $130,000,” the ruling says.
Laws in Ontario and other provinces give those facing lawsuits, often for defamation, the chance to argue that the case should be dismissed because it has the effect of silencing open debate. Free-speech advocates call such lawsuits “strategic litigation against public participation,” or SLAPP. The laws are known as “anti-SLAPP.”
Legal observers say such outcomes can carry a cost. “For plaintiffs who have their cases dismissed after an anti-SLAPP motion, the potential costs implications can be severe,” said Justin Safayeni, a lawyer at Stockwoods LLP in Toronto.
Prospective plaintiffs, he said, should “think carefully before bringing defamation cases — especially against defendants who will not hesitate to incur significant fees to fight such motions.”
The underlying controversy started in the winter of 2018-19, when the newly elected Progressive Conservative government offered the province’s top policing job to a friend of Mr. Ford.
A public outcry over the OPP appointment erupted, causing the candidate, Toronto Police superintendent Ron Taverner, to decline the position.
Mr. Blair – then the acting OPP chief – launched a lawsuit saying he was unfairly passed over for the job. He alleged that the provincial government’s OPP hiring practices were a concealed act of “cronyism” and fit a pattern of political encroachment on policing. He filed into court OPP documents outlining other frictions between the police force and the Premier’s Office.
In response, the Premier gave televised interviews in which he accused Mr. Blair of breaking Ontario’s Police Services Act by making sensitive documents public.
In March, 2019, a government official fired Mr. Blair, who initiated other legal actions – including a wrongful dismissal case, and the libel lawsuit, in which he said the Premier defamed him by likening him to a lawbreaker.
During a deposition last fall, Mr. Ford said he couldn’t speak out about the OPP controversy for fear of exposing himself to more damages from Mr. Blair’s libel lawsuit.
The court agreed. There is “significant public interest in hearing the defendant’s [Mr. Ford’s] comments,” Justice Belobaba wrote as he dismissed the suit in December.
In recent weeks, the sides have battled over costs. Lawyers for Mr. Ford argued that Mr. Blair should pay their entire $600,000 legal bill. Mr. Blair contended that he owed no costs.
The judge ruled Mr. Blair was liable for some. And he was not swayed by Mr. Blair’s argument that he cannot pay because he is now retired.
Mr. Blair’s wrongful dismissal suit is still before the courts. Justice Belobaba ruled that he can delay paying half the costs to Mr. Ford until that case is resolved.
Both sides have served notice that they will seek to appeal aspects of the rulings. Mr. Blair wants his libel lawsuit reinstated. Mr. Ford’s lawyers will ask for Mr. Blair to pay more costs.
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