No win, no fee: no fee, no case

A good day for massive, human rights-abusing companies -  a bad day for poor victims

You might have heard the discussion on this morning’s Today programme about reforms to legal aid in Britain which are being debated in the House of Lords this week.

listen to ‘Ken Clarke: Legal Aid Bill 'doesn't close anybody's access to justice'’ on Audioboo
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What you won’t have heard, was any discussion about how the proposed reforms might impact on victims of human rights abuses committed abroad by UK multi-nationals. You won’t have heard about that because they are the forgotten segment - neglected in discussions of extortionate legal fees and an ambulance-chasing compensation culture, cited as reasons why reform is needed lest we slide towards a slip-and-sue culture more akin to US practices.

But there are other cases that don’t fall into that bracket. The sort of cases of concern to Amnesty often involve poor communities whose rights and welfare have been ridden roughshod over by a huge goliath corporate company.

A company like Shell, perhaps.

Under the proposed reforms, it is unlikely that victims such as the 69,000 people living in Bodo, Nigeria, would have been able to pursue a case against multi-national conglomerate Shell, who recently admitted full culpability for two massive oil spills in the region. The spills have caused livelihoods to be devastated; food and water sources to be contaminated; and widespread health problems. Before the case was legally pursued in the UK, Shell offered the Bodo community “£3,500 together with 50 bags of rice, 50 bags of beans and a few cartons of sugar, tomatoes and groundnut oil”, a pitiful remedy in light of the company’s profits of £11.5 billion in 2010.

The proposed reforms to Legal Aid, would prevent the claimant’s legal team from claiming legal costs above and beyond compensation awarded and would stop them from being able to protect themselves with insurance for legal fees, should they lose. Given that the amount of compensation awarded will also be reduced by the proposals, taken together these changes would mean that affordable legal representation was impossible to come by for most victims. This would take us back decades in terms of access to justice for ordinary people.

These moves stand to make some of the world’s most vulnerable people still more exposed to abuse and snatches away one of the very few avenues of recourse that they currently have.  It may be the case that this group has just been forgotten or overlooked by the government in these sweeping reforms and that they are just collateral damage. However, the message as it stands is that this government simply do not care about the most vulnerable and their access to justice.  It is counter-intuitive for a government which professes to wish to promote “responsible capitalism” to hand carte blanche to multinationals to abuse human rights with impunity.

There must be an exemption for the sort of cases that Amnesty is concerned about. If we allow these reforms to proceed in their current state, that is just unjust.

About Amnesty UK Blogs
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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