Government prices poor victims of overseas human rights abuses out of court

By staff writers
27 Mar 2012

Aid and human rights agencies have expressed dismay at the UK government's repeated failure to heed informed criticism of its legal plans.

Amendments to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill to safeguard justice for victims of corporate human rights abuses in developing countries were narrowly defeated in the House of Lords on 27 March 2012.

Crossbench peers had argued that an exemption was needed to make sure than poor communities harmed by UK-based companies could still afford to bring cases to court.

Under the changes in the Bill, success fees and insurance costs will now come out of the damages awarded to the victims, instead of being paid by the transnational company that has lost the case. Damages for these kinds of human rights abuses are typically much lower because they occur in developing countries. Fees and insurance premiums reflect the costs of bringing a court case in the UK.

In practice this will mean that for many poor overseas victims it will no longer be financially viable to seek justice.

Anne Lindsay, CAFOD’s lead private sector analyst said: “We don’t understand why the Government has refused to budge - there is no flood of spurious corporate abuse cases. The amendments would not cost the UK taxpayer a penny because these costs would continue to be paid by the losing company. CAFOD is concerned that this new law denies justice to the poorest and most vulnerable in our world and sends a message to irresponsible companies that they can act with impunity.

She continued: “The UK has been vocal in its support for the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Right, including access to justice, but actions speak louder than words. This change in the law will substantially reduce or even wipe out any damages that victims receive, pricing poor communities out of our courts.”

CAFOD, Amnesty International and Oxfam wrote to the Prime Minister in February highlighting the impact of the proposed reforms on poor victims of corporate human rights abuses and asking for the Bill to be amended.

Friends of the Earth and the Christian think-tank Ekklesia were also among those urging or advising the government to change course.

There is, equally, real concern about the likely impact of the Bill on poor and marginalised people seeking justice within the UK.

[Ekk/3]

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