ECCJ report: Suing Goliath – barriers to victims of BHR abuses to accessing justice

The European Coalition for Corporate Justice (ECCJ) has released a report that looks at 22 recent major civil cases against EU companies. Through these cases the report identifies serious and systemic barriers to justice, which prevent victims of business-related abuses from accessing judicial remedy.

Even where accountability standards can hold corporations liable, claimants often face insurmountable obstacles. 

First, cases are often heard based on the law of the country where the harm occurred, not where the parent or lead company is headquartered. 

Second, in most cases brought to EU courts so far, whether it relates to the collapse of a factory or pollution of a river, harm is suffered by a collective of people. However, national legal systems do not always allow for a large number of claimants to seek compensation collectively.

Insufficient time limits are another key impediment to justice. In some EU countries, the time limit for a party to bring a tort claim is as short as one year, which makes it virtually impossible to bring transnational cases on time. In others, the limitation period begins to run even before harm is manifested. 

It is also important that the court can order defendant companies to present further evidence. Limited access to evidence, such as companies’ internal documents, makes it extremely difficult for claimants to substantiate their claims.

The regulatory gaps are clear:

  • Of all civil proceedings analysed, only two have so far resulted in judgments favourable to the claimants, both against Royal Dutch Shell
  • No final judgment has so far ordered an EU company to pay compensation for damages.

The lack of consequences for the negligent management of human rights and environmental impacts in global value chains means there is little incentive for companies to address those impacts.

The future EU directive on Sustainable Corporate Governance, including Human Rights and Environmental Due Diligence, should not merely enshrine a corporate due diligence duty, but also establish consequences for non-compliance of companies. It is crucial to ensure access to judicial remedy for victims when businesses fail to take adequate action.

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