How to prevent a betrayal of Human Rights

Wilf StevensonLord Wilf Stevenson of Balmacara speaks from Labour’s frontbench in the LASPO Bill, and DCMS, higher education and trade matters in the House of Lords

Since the last Labour Government introduced contingency fee agreements some ten years ago, it has been possible for vulnerable victims of corporate abuses which are alleged to have been perpetrated overseas by UK companies to mount cases in British courts.

They may be a small number of cases – there have been 11 in the last decade – but they have had a direct impact on the lives of millions of people in the developing world.  Each successful case has also illuminated key areas of corporate misconduct in the developing world – from the dumping of pollutants in communities’ water supplies; to appalling health and safety standards in mines; and direct corporate involvement in abduction and torture. At the end of the day it is important that people know that they cannot act with impunity.  We don’t want the majority of responsible UK businesses disadvantaged because laggard companies get away with sub-standard, harmful practices.

But with its Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, the Government seems determined to block access to our courts by those in developing countries whose lives have been adversely affected by companies based in this country.  Ministers seem to think that it will be possible for the typical claimants in these cases - rural farmers from remote areas of Peru or Colombia, South African asbestos miners, or citizens of Cote d’Ivoire (one of the poorest countries in the world) – to finance actions of this type.  These are not short proceedings and are often dragged out by high-financed companies refusing to admit liability.  They involve teams of lawyers and expert witnesses – all of which costs money.

Our proposed amendments to the Bill, debated today at 3rd Reading, would retain the current costs awards system for human rights cases – to ensure that these costs are covered.  Creating this exception would not be fatal to the overall aims of the Bill.  The existing regime of success fees and After the Event insurance premiums being paid by the losing company, instead of coming out of the damages of the claimant, are the most sensible way of ensuring these cases continue to be mounted.  And due to stringent rules it is unlikely to be more than a few cases a year.

One objective of the Legal Aid Bill is to reduce the costs of cases across the system as a whole.  Clearly there is a good reason for this where costs fall to be met in whole or part by the public purse. However in the human rights cases we are concerned about there are no cost to the public purse.

It may be irritating to the Ministry of Justice to have to create a carve-out in a Bill for a small group of cases.  But surely it is vitally important that vulnerable victims should get justice and compensation for trauma and harm experienced, loss of livelihood or even life if that has been caused by UK companies.  And it is equally important that companies know they can be brought to account if they act irresponsibly. 

I hope we can find an accommodation, because this is a profoundly depressing and shameful situation, one which reflects very badly on the human rights credentials of the Government. What kind of example are we setting, and what message are we sending to UK Companies, if we now change our laws to make it even harder for poor victims of corporate abuses perpetrated by UK companies to seek redress?

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