Legal aid: we must act for justice right now

Next week (Tuesday 27 March 2012) the House of Lords will be voting on a crucial question for the UK’s international record on business and human rights.

In the middle of hundreds of amendments to the tentacular Legal Aid and Punishment of Offenders Bill which is currently passing through Parliament, the Lords will finally vote on amendments designed to make sure that overseas victims of abuses committed by UK-based companies will still be able to bring cases in the English courts.

The need for these amendments have been highlighted by CAFOD, Amnesty International, Oxfam and others, and supported by cross-bencher Baroness Jean Coussins, as well as LibDem and Labour peers. And yet, the Government has refused to budge.

The Government claims its new Bill will prevent ‘ambulance chasing’ by legal firms using ‘no win-no fee’ arrangements to claim large success fees from defendants. However, ministers have already admitted there has never been a glut of spurious human rights cases from overseas. In fact only 11 such cases have been brought in the last decade.

But a consequence of the Bill’s all-encompassing nature will be to also remove the ‘success fee’ paid to specialist law firms that bring human rights abuse cases against UK multinationals operating overseas. This means these cases will become too expensive and risky for overseas victims to bring in most circumstances, and that means poor claimants in poor countries won’t be able to seek justice in the UK. And what’s really concerning about the UK government’s refusal to move on this issue, is that these cases don’t involve any taxpayers’ cash.

Foreign victims do not have any access to Legal Aid so these claims already depend on ‘no win, no fee’ agreements with lawyers and claimants being able to get insurance to cover the costs and risks of such lengthy, complicated cases.

The Government is proposing to change this system so that lawyers’ success fees and the insurance premiums would be paid out of the damages awarded to the victim instead of being paid by the losing company. When the size of damages is often judged by in-country standards, yet the court costs will be at rich nation levels – there just is no way to bridge this financial disparity and injustice.

There are a lot of domestic issues of importance in the Legal Aid Bill, and in highlighting this one, I in no way belittle any others. But let’s not let this one slip by unaddressed and unfought for. It’s important. Really important. If we are unable to hold UK companies to legal account for human rights abuses abroad we make the choice to abandon the poorest -and we release a kraken, and it will be one that damages our reputation as a bastion of justice and rightminded right-doing.

In the final days before the Lords vote next Tuesday CAFOD has joined forces with Amnesty International, Oxfam and Friends of the Earth to back a social media campaign to gain support for these amendments. Please add your voice to the #CourtShort campaign and get the word out by tweeting your support with the #CourtShort hashtag and taking the poll http://www.facebook.com/soundoffjustice. For more information: http://soundoffforjustice.org/
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(c) Pascale Palmer is Senior Press Officer (Policy & Campaigns) for the official Catholic aid agency CAFOD - www.cafod.org.uk

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