Ruling extends powers of UK courts over foreign offences

15 Apr 19

Campaigners have welcomed a Supreme Court ruling which means that parent companies can be held legally responsible in the UK for offences committed by their subsidiaries.

The defendants in the case were Konkola Copper Mines, owned by UK-based Vedanta Resources. They had been accused of affecting the health of local residents through polluting the river Kafua with toxic chemicals from the Nchanga Copper Mine. Experts say that the ruling means other communities in developing countries could seek similar redress in the UK against large multinationals.

In 2015, following cases heard in the Zambian courts, in which KCM denied responsibility, London-based lawyers Leigh Day filed for damages on behalf of around 1,800 Zambian citizens, seeking redress for sickness and loss of livelihood.

However, KCM and Vedanta argued that proceedings should be heard in Africa, on the grounds that the claimants and witnesses were Zambian citizens and did not speak English and that all of the documents and regulatory records were in Zambian.

The UK’s Supreme Court has rejected their arguments, citing Article 4 of the Brussels Regulation Recast, applying to cases begun after January 2015 and a recent decision of the English courts that parent companies can be liable for activities of their foreign subsidiaries.

Vedanta commented: “The judgment of the UK Supreme Court is a procedural one and relates only to the jurisdiction of the English courts to hear these claims. It is not a judgment on the merits of the claims. Vedanta and KCM will defend themselves against any such claims at the appropriate time.”

Martyn Day, senior partner at Leigh Day, said: “I hope this judgment will send a strong message to other large multinationals that their corporate social responsibility policies should not just be seen as a polish for their reputation but as important commitments that they must put into action.” Leigh Day has also represented residents from the Niger Delta in a case against Royal Dutch Shell.

Partners for UK law firm, RPC, Chris Ross and Simon Hart, said there would be many reasons why claimants abroad may prefer to litigate in London against UK-based companies. They cited the quality and impartiality of the British judiciary, the availability of experienced lawyers and the existence of a robust disclosure regime. They said that this case would give claimants a powerful avenue by which to do so.

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