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UK Legal Aid Bill: the victims will be the victims

  • Letter to Peers from Amnesty, Oxfam and CAFOD (PDF)
  • Corporate Responsibility Coalition briefing on the Legal Aid Bill reforms strong> (PDF)
  • Blog post:  'No win, no fee: no fee no case' /li>

Changes to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill (LASPO) being debated in the House of Lords this week will have a devastating effect on access to justice for the overseas victims of human rights abuses committed by UK multinational companies, Amnesty International said today.

Amnesty has written to all peers to outline fierce opposition to the proposed changes to legal funding which would tip the civil litigation scales against victims and in favour of huge companies.

The government has already suffered three defeats on changes to the legal aid system in the Lords this week, with peers citing concerns over access to justice in some instances as their reason for opposing the government’s proposals. They are likely to vote on this particular aspect of the Bill next week.

The government’s proposals will place justice beyond the reach of individuals and communities who are the victims of human rights abuse, and will offer impunity to corporations who commit abuse. The proposals state that both the success fee and the After the Event (ATE) insurance premium should be paid for out of the compensation awarded to victims. Taken together these costs are likely to wipe out potential damages awarded and will make the claim financially unviable at the outset.

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.

Kate Allen, Director of Amnesty International UK, said:

“It is outrageous that a government which professes to want to promote “responsible capitalism” is giving carte blanche to powerful goliath companies to abuse human rights with no remedy for their victims.

“At best this is an oversight, and the government has not fully assessed that human rights victims will be swept up in these reforms, but at worst this is a callous sign that the government simply does not care about the most vulnerable when the interests of corporations are at stake.

“The proposed reforms will not even come with a saving to the public purse. The only beneficiaries will be the multinational corporations defending the case whose costs will be reduced at the expense of the victims' damages. This should not be allowed to happen."

Amnesty International is promoting an amendment that will carve out an exception for the kind of cases of concern so that the victims of UK multinational corporations operating abroad should have an avenue for pursuing civil litigation when their human rights are infringed upon.

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