SA will allow wealthy corporations to silence those who can’t afford to litigate and defend themselves if it doesn’t bring an end to Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation (SLAPP) suits, environmental attorney Cormac Cullinan reportedly told the Mail & Guardian.

This is ‘unjust and contrary to the Constitution’, said Cullinan, one of six activists and public interest lawyers, who last week reached a settlement agreement with an Australian mining company and its local subsidiary, bringing a partial close to a protracted defamation battle.

In 2016 and 2017, Mineral Commodities Ltd (MRC), its local subsidiary Mineral Sands Resources, former MRC executive chairperson Mark Caruso and its empowerment partner Zamile Qunya sued environmental attorneys Christine Reddell, Tracey Davies and Cullinan, social worker John GI Clarke, and activists Mzamo Dlamini, from the Wild Coast, and Davine Cloete, from Lutzville on the West Coast, for R14.25m. 

This was for their public criticism of the MRC’s proposed titanium mining project at Xolobeni on the Wild Coast and its Tormin operations on the West Coast.

As noted in a report last week, the terms of the settlement agreement are confidential. 

Cullinan noted SA has been seeing 'a huge increase in lawfare and what amounts to abuses of legal process'. 

The purpose of much of this is to ‘either prevent justice being done as in the case with (former President Jacob) Zuma’, or to prevent people from exercising their constitutional rights to freedom of expression’, the M&G report quotes him as saying.

The defendants’ case has been important because it resulted in the Constitutional Court’s judgment in November last year, ‘which says that if you prove something is a SLAPP suit then it’s an abuse of process. And in this case, it was settled before the courts found that this was actually a SLAPP suit.’

In February 2021, Western Cape High Court Deputy Judge President Patricia Goliath handed down a groundbreaking judgment in favour of the defendants, describing how the series of defamation lawsuits matched the ‘DNA of a SLAPP suit’ and were an effort to ‘weaponise our legal system against the ordinary citizen and activists to intimidate and silence them’. 

It’s too easy to silence people with SLAPP suits because the costs of defending people defending themselves would bankrupt them, said Cullinan.

‘That means that people back down … because litigation is so expensive and wealthy corporations and individuals instituting litigation can move a dispute onto a terrain in which they have a huge advantage,’ Cullinan said. 

‘And in my experience, as an environmental lawyer, for every case that comes to court, you know a SLAPP suit or something, there’s probably 100 others threats etcetera, where people back down … so it really is kind of the tip of the iceberg.’

Full Mail & Guardian report