Asbestos jurisdiction case set for appeal

Roger Pearson reports on the attempts of 4,000 claimants to have their case heard in the UK rather than in South Africa

An appeal is scheduled to begin in October which will have far-reaching implications on the rights of around 4,000 victims of asbestos-related disease to claim compensation.

The appeal is against the decision of Mr Justice Buckley made on 30 July, that a case which promises to be the largest asbestos-related disease case ever, must be heard in South African courts and not the English High Court.

The case has been rushed to the Appeal Court at high speed because the claimants' lawyers say that many of their clients are elderly and, because of the disease, in very poor health.

In his July decision, Mr Justice Buckley blocked the claim, involving around 4,000 people mainly from South Africa, from being heard in the UK.

Cape plc, the company being sued, argued that the case should be heard in South Africa where the events leading to the action took place.

However, 1,500 claimants, represented by Leigh Day & Co and John Pickering & Partners, want it heard in the English High Court.

They argued that there was no mechanism for the South African courts to hear a multi-party claim of this nature.

Solicitor Anthony Coombs of John Pickering & Partners says that Cape is an English company and that decisions that were made in England are to blame for the alleged diseases. He says that if the case goes to South Africa it is unlikely to proceed.

However, the judge rejected claims that there would not be a fair trial in South Africa.

Instead, he accepted the arguments of Cape that, because the events leading to the claim had occurred in South Africa and that was where information relating to the claim had to be collected, the case should take place there.

He said that South Africa was "clearly and distinctly the more appropriate forum" for a hearing into conditions in South Africa over 20 or 30 years, and the individual history of many claimants.

He said that parts of South Africa had been "awash" with asbestos at the time in question, not only in the mines and mills, but in dumps and on the roads, and this was the sort of evidence that would be involved in the case.

He did not consider on the evidence presented to him that the South African courts would fail to deal with the matter appropriately.

It is that decision which is now to be appealed with the case scheduled to begin on either 4 or 5 October.