Zambian farmers allowed to sue Vedanta in UK

Vidya Ram London | Updated on April 10, 2019 Published on April 10, 2019

A view of the Konkola Copper Mines in Zambia. Over 1,800 people from poor farming communities in the region are seeking to bring proceedings against the company alleging toxic emissions into waterways

Mining giant had challenged jurisdiction of British courts over legal tussle in foreign land

A group of over 1,800 Zambian citizens can take Vedanta Resources and its Zambian subsidiary Konkola Copper Mines (KCM) to court in the UK over allegations relating to the pollution of a river there, after Britain’s Supreme Court rejected an attempt by the company to challenge the jurisdiction of British courts.

They will now be able to bring their claims for torts of negligence and breach of duty to the courts in the UK, first initiated in 2015.

Wider significance

The Supreme Court judgment is seen as having wider significance for parent companies and their ability to be held liable for alleged activity abroad. Vedanta Resources cannot appeal the jurisdiction judgment any further as its attempt to suggest recourse to the European Court of Justice during the Supreme Court proceedings was also rejected.

The judgment was read in court by Lord Briggs, with the four other justices considering the case concurring with him.

“For the claimants it’s hugely significant. They can proceed with the substantive claim, which was their initial intention, and hopefully obtain some sort of justice for the allegations they have made,” Oliver Holland, from the law firm Leigh Day, who is representing the claimants, told this paper. “We did not envisage that it would take so long to get to this point.”

He added that the judgment had wider significance, too. “What Lord Briggs clarified was the extent to which a parent company is responsible for the actions of a subsidiary. He says, importantly, that where a parent corporate entity in London is saying they take responsibility for the actions of the subsidiary on environmental, health and other issues — whether or not they actually do so — they can be held liable.”

Vedanta Resources and KCM had won the right to appeal to Britain’s top court after lower courts had upheld the jurisdiction of UK courts.

Over 1,800 men and women from poor farming communities in Zambia had sought to bring proceedings against the company alleging toxic emissions from the Nchanga Copper Mine (owned by KCM) into waterways on which they are heavily reliant for drinking and irrigation.

While KCM was the operator of the mine, the claimants argued that Vedanta Resources — because of its high level of control and direction over the mining operations — should also face the allegations, and commenced proceedings in 2015. Attempts by Vedanta and KCM to challenge the jurisdiction were thrown out by the High Court and Court of Appeal in 2016 and 2017. They then sought the Supreme Court’s ruling, alleging an abuse of EU law in the pursuance of the case, that there was no real triable issue against Vedanta, and that the UK wasn’t the right place for the claims to be made.

Judges slam company

In their judgment, the Supreme Court justices also said that appellants needed to use “proportionality” and “economy” in pursuing cases around jurisdiction, in an implicit criticism of the determination with which the jurisdictional issue was pursued.

They said that “well-known warnings” — that such cases should not involve “masses of documents” and parties incurring “hundreds of thousands of pounds in costs” — were ignored in this case.

“The parties’ two written cases (ignoring annexes) ran to 294 pages. The electronic bundles included 8,945 pages. No less than 142 authorities were deployed, spread over 13 bundles, in relation to an appeal which, on final analysis, involved only one difficult point of law,” they said. They also suggested there had been an attempt to “dress up” what was in reality a “factual dispute.”

Sustainable development

“As the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals recognise, sustainable development and access to justice go hand in hand. The judges’ ruling today recognises and enforces that principle,” said Samarendra Das of Foil Vedanta, a grassroots organisation that has campaigned in London as well as in India, Sri Lanka, Zambia, Liberia and South Africa. “This is an historic day for victims of British multinationals’ abuses worldwide.”

Vedanta Resources was contacted for its comment but has not provided its response at the time of going to print.

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Published on April 10, 2019
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