SC seeks to protect 'green' crusaders from harassment

by DAVID DIZON, abs-cbnNEWS.com

Posted at Apr 17 2009 04:38 PM | Updated as of Apr 18 2009 12:38 AM

The Supreme Court on Friday said it is seeking greater protection from litigation for individuals or groups who file lawsuits against corporations who harm the environment.

Chief Justice Reynato Puno said the provision for greater protection for environmental crusaders against Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs) is included in the draft rules of court being discussed in a two-day forum on environmental justice in Baguio City.

He said SLAPPs are usually filed by big corporations against individuals who sue them for causing environmental degradation in their community.

"They file criminal cases involving millions of pesos all designed to dissuade you from initiating and prosecuting these environmental cases," he told reporters at the Baguio summit.

The proposed anti-SLAPP provision states that courts can, on its own initiative after reviewing the case and all evidence presented, dismiss a suit filed against a person who filed a citizen's suit for the purpose of enforcing the provisions of any environmental law or its implementing rules and regulations.

"If the intent to harass, vex, exert undue pressure or stifle such legal course is manifest from the pleadings, the course shall dismiss the complaint," the rule stated.

Many of the country's environmental groups have complained about the propensity of corporations of filing criminal and civil lawsuits against environmental crusaders.

SLAPP defendants

A report by the Environmental Defender Law Center said some SLAPP defendants have been sued for lawful actions such as "initiating signature campaigns, circulating a petition, publishing articles in newsletters, organizing and speaking in public meetings, reporting violations of the law, or participating in peaceful demonstrations."

In 2007, a Davao City Regional Trial Court judge junked a P5.5 million civil case filed by Davao-based banana exporter Lapanday Agricultural and Development Corp. (Ladeco) against toxicologist Dr. Romeo V. Quijano, president of Pesticide Action Network Philippines, and his daughter Ilang-Ilang Quijano, a journalist.

Ladeco sued the Quijanos for writing an article on the environmental effects of pesticide poisoning in a village near the Ladeco banana plantation in Digos, Davao del Sur. Judge Renato Fuentes of Davao RTC branch 11 junked the suit and ordered Ladeco to pay the Quijanos P50,000 in attorneys' fees.

The Quijanos, however, spent more than P300,000 in legal costs before the case was dismissed.

Puno said the anti-SLAPP provision is just one of several radical approaches proposed by the Supreme Court to reform rules of court governing the litigation of cases involving the environment.

Green courts

He said the rules also address common problems faced by the country's 117 environmental or "green" courts.

He said some of the most common problems faced in environmental litigation are delays in resolving environmental disputes, the problem of difficulty of presenting evidence in order to prosecute these cases, especially the criminal aspects, and the problem of the high cost of litigating environmental cases.

"Some [of the new rules] are very radical in their approaches but perhaps we need a new mindset in view of the gravity of the problems that confront us and the need to tackle them in the shortest time possible," he said.

Currently, he said there are 3,000 environmental lawsuits that are pending in various courts all over the country.