Zambian villagers get court’s nod to sue Vedanta

U.K. judges reject attempts by the company to bring jurisdictional challenge over pollution of river

April 10, 2019 10:58 pm | Updated 11:37 pm IST - London

Site of the Konkola Copper Mines plant in Zambia

Site of the Konkola Copper Mines plant in Zambia

A group of over 1,800 Zambian citizens can take Vedanta Resources and its Zambian subsidiary, Konkola Copper Mines (KCM), to court in the U.K. 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 U.K., 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 is 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 The Hindu . “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 company corporate entity in London is saying [it] takes responsibility for the actions of the subsidiary on environmental, health and other issues, whether or not [it] actually do[es] so, they can be held liable.”

Earlier verdict

Vedanta Resources and KCM had won the right to appeal to Britain’s top court after lower courts had upheld the jurisdiction of U.K. courts. A total of 1,826 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.

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 also suggested there had been an attempt to “dress up” what was in reality a “factual dispute.”

“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, which has campaigned in London, as well as India, Sri Lanka, Zambia, Liberia and South Africa. “This is an historic day for victims of British multinational's abuses worldwide.”

Vedanta Resources was contacted for its comment but has not provided its response at the time of publishing this article.

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