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Thursday, 20 July, 2000, 15:50 GMT 16:50 UK
Asbestos miners allowed UK trial

Cape plc mined asbestos in Northern Cape for years
The House of Lords has ruled that 3,000 compensation claims from South African asbestos miners and their families can be taken to the English courts.

Five law lords in London ruled that the miners, who claim to be suffering asbestos-related diseases, would be denied justice if they were prevented from suing their former employer, UK-based Cape plc, in England instead of South Africa.

We will be stepping up the pressure on Cape's shareholders

Ben Jackson, Action for South Africa

Senior law lord Thomas Bingham said there were no developed procedures for handling group actions in South Africa where law firms would be reluctant to take on such a potentially protracted and expensive litigation on a "no win, no fee" basis.

Supporters of the miners have described the ruling as a decisive victory for justice.

The decision could also set a precedent for compensation claims to be pursued outside the country in which the events themselves took place.

Decision over-ruled

The miners are claiming compensation for diseases they believe they contracted while working for Cape between 1930 and 1979 when the firm was mining asbestos in the northern cape and the other northern provinces of South Africa.

The claimants say they contracted diseases such as asbestosis and Mesothelioma - a form of cancer.

Lord Bingham: Trial in Africa would deny justice

The Court of Appeal had originally supported the firm's argument that there was no reason for the cases to be heard outside South Africa.

But Lord Bingham said that a hearing in South Africa could suffer difficulties because the courts there were relatively inexperienced in such a group action.

"This would amount to a denial of justice," he said.

Lawyers for the miners say obtaining financial aid to bring the cases in South Africa would be difficult.

'Victory for claims'

Lord Bingham said the central thrust of the damages claims was that Cape, as a parent company, failed to ensure that proper working practices were followed and proper safety precautions observed throughout the group's foreign subsidiaries.

It is claimed that the firm knew at the time that exposure to asbestos could seriously damage health.

Ben Jackson, director of Action for Southern Africa (ACTSA), described the ruling as a "decisive victory for justice".

"ACTSA will be stepping up the pressure on Cape's shareholders to ensure that Cape does everything it can to resolve this issue fairly and speedily," he said.

Northern Cape environment minister Thabo Makweya, who was in London for the decision, said the South African government was "delighted" with the result.

"We are now working with the lawyers and ACTSA campaigners to ensure that the speediest resolution to this case is found," he said.

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See also:

30 Jun 00 | Scotland
Asbestos errors reviewed
21 Mar 00 | A-B
Asbestos disease
05 Jul 99 | The Company File
Asbestos victims' court battle
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