Back in September last year, we launched the Justice campaign with the story of Mary and her husband Samwel, from North Mara in Tanzania.
Samwel had been shot through the spine by police acting on the instructions of the owners of the North Mara gold mine, a UK-based company then known as African Barrick Gold. The company has subsequently changed its name to Acacia Mining plc.
In this very poor part of Tanzania, local people have for years gone onto the waste dumps in order to try and collect a few gold-bearing rocks to supplement their income from farming. At an incident in 2011 the company responded by calling in the police, who then used live ammunition to drive the villagers away.
We know that at least 16 people were killed after being shot at the mine. Yes, there was a problem with security, but the response was heavy-handed and inappropriate. Just imagine the outcry if something similar happened in the UK.
Samwel, paralysed since the 2011 shooting, was one of a group of local people who, with the support of a UK human rights law firm, sued the company through the English courts.
On Friday, we heard the news that the claimants and the company have settled the case out of court. No further statement was made and it is likely that the agreement is subject to a confidentiality clause, so we may never know the details.
The company has always claimed that they were not responsible, and in settling the case has made no admission of liability.
On Friday, Leigh Day, the UK law firm acting for Tanzanian claimants tweeted a picture of Samwel, looking delighted, from his hospital bed. We hope that any payout which has been agreed will be sufficient for him to get the medical treatment he needs (no NHS in Tanzania) and to give the family an income to live on.
But what are the wider implications of this case?
Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, it shows the power of a legal process. We know that other people in the community who had also suffered injuries accepted the limited compensation which the company offered. We don’t know what pressure was put on them. The point of the law is that it can compel people and organisations to act in a way that nothing else does. Would the company have agreed a settlement without the force of law? I doubt it.
Secondly, it shows how hard it is to get access to the law. Perverse as it may seem to say it, the North Mara claimants are the lucky ones. The publicity surrounding the case; the fact that a Tanzanian organisation, the Legal and Human Rights Centre, took up their case along with the UK law firm; all made it possible for them to bring the case to the English courts. Many others don't have that option.
In an ideal world, cases like this should be brought through the courts in the country where the alleged harm has taken place. But we have to live in the real world. There have been very few cases where people have got justice against a big international company through the courts in developing countries. The imbalance in power is just too great.
The final point I want to make is about the limitations of using the civil process. The claimants in this case sued for damages through the civil courts. Often such claims result in an out of court settlement. The individuals have received some compensation for their losses and that is most definitely good news.
But the company has admitted no liability and because the settlement sum is not made public this limits the deterrent effect the case can have on other companies’ practices. Whilst we hope that the negative publicity will make them review their processes and look at how they can prevent this kind of thing happening in future, this is by no means certain.
Through the Justice campaign, we’re calling on the next UK government to take steps to make access to justice a reality for people who, like Samwel and Mary, find themselves at the wrong end of the activities of a British business. It won't be easy and we’re under no illusion that we can solve the problem overnight. But if we can make it easier for one person to get compensation through the English civil courts, or one company to be held accountable for their actions, then it will be worthwhile.