In a landmark jurisdictional decision, the Scottish Court of Session ruled that a legal case against a Scottish company, relating to working practices in Kenya, can be heard by a Scottish court. The ruling means that Scottish courts have jurisdiction to hear cases on alleged human rights harms by Scottish companies regardless of whether the harms took place abroad.
- On 11 July 2023, a judge in the Scottish Court of Session ruled that a case brought against Scottish based tea company, James Finlay Kenya Ltd, can proceed in Scotland and be heard by a Scottish court. The ruling gives Scottish court’s jurisdiction over alleged harms committed by Scottish companies regardless of whether the harms took place abroad.
- This decision is in line with the UK Supreme Court’s statements in the landmark Vedanta decision (2020), which determined that the Zambian claimants in that case had discretion to sue Vedanta in either the UK or Zambia, and recognised that in practical terms, access to justice would be more limited in Zambia.
- The Scottish court decision is also consistent with the trend of UK courts to steadily broaden the interpretation of when parent companies hold a duty of care in RBC cases. The Supreme Court’s decision in Vedanta means that parent companies can be held liable for RBC impacts caused by their subsidiaries if the company sets group-level human rights or environmental policies and claims to implement or monitor those policies. Precedent set in another landmark case against UK-based Maran (2023) means that companies could be held liable for supply chain impacts if they are seen to have created a ‘state of danger’ for workers.
- The Scottish case was initially filed in September 2021, by a Kenyan law firm (with a Scottish law firm acting as their agents), on behalf of over 1,300 former and current workers who allegedly suffered harm as a result of working on the Kenyan tea plantations owned by James Finlay Kenya Ltd. The case alleged that the workers sustained injuries as a result of unsafe working practices, which resulted in permanent damage to their spines.
- Proceedings in the case commenced in March 2023, but a decision first had to be made regarding jurisdiction; lawyers for James Finlay Kenya Ltd argued that the case should be brought in Kenya – not Scotland. In August 2022, the Scottish Court of Session ordered the company to stop taking legal action in Kenya – described by the judge as “vexatious and oppressive”- which the company had commenced in order to block the lawsuit in Scotland.
- In assessing the question of jurisdiction, the court stated that a) Kenyan law did not preclude the case from being heard in Scotland, and that b) Kenya was not a more convenient forum for hearing this case considering the limited legal aid and funding available to claimants.
- In May 2023, it was reported that James Finlay Kenya Ltd had been sold by its parent company (James Finlay Ltd) to Browns Investment Plc, a diversified conglomerate that owns one of the largest tea producing companies in Sri Lanka. The sale will be completed over the coming months and will include all parts of James Finlay Kenya Ltd, except for a tea extraction facility which will be sold to a locally owned co-operative.