Loosening the Jurisdictional Straitjacket: The Vedanta Ruling and the Jurisdiction of UK Courts in Transnational Civil Liability Cases - By Maisie Biggs

 Editor’s note: Maisie Biggs recently graduated with a MSc in Global Crime, Justice and Security from the University of Edinburgh and holds a LLB from University College London. She is currently an intern with the Doing Business Right project at the Asser Institute in The Hague. She previously worked for International Justice Mission in South Asia and the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO) in Amsterdam.


“No one who comes to these courts asking for justice should come in vain. The right to come here is not confined to Englishmen. It extends to any friendly foreigner. He can seek the aid of our courts if he desires to do so. You may call this ‘forum shopping’ if you please, but if the forum is England, it is a good place to shop in both for the quality of the goods and the speed of service.”

Lord Denning in The Atlantic Star [1973] 1 QB 364 (CA) 381–2


The United Kingdom Supreme Court today has handed down Vedanta Resources PLC and another (Appellants) v Lungowe and others (Respondents) [2019] UKSC 20, a significant judgement concerning parent company liability and the determination of jurisdiction for these claims. Practically, it now means for the first time a UK company will face trial and potentially accountability in their home jurisdiction for environmental harms associated with operations of foreign subsidiaries. 

This is a closely-watched jurisdiction case concerning a UK parent company’s liability arising out of the actions of its foreign subsidiary. The claimants are 1826 Zambian citizens from the Chingola region of the Copperbelt Province. This group action is against UK-domiciled Vedanta Resources PLC and its subsidiary KCM, a second defendant which is incorporated in Zambia. The original claims concern discharges from the KCM-owned Nchanga mine since 2005 which have allegedly caused pollution and environmental damage leading to personal injury, damage to property and loss of income, amenity and enjoyment of land. 

Following the initiation of this claim, in 2015 Vedanta and KCM challenged the jurisdiction of the English courts, however Coulson J dismissed their applications. The Court of Appeal then upheld the dismissal of those applications, so the defendants appealed to the Supreme Court. (See our previous blog on the case here).

The Supreme Court today denied the appeal by Vedanta Resources and KCM, and allowed the claim to proceed to merits in England. The Court made it clear the real risk that the claimants would not obtain access to substantial justice in Zambia was the deciding factor in the case. The Court denied there was an abuse of EU law by the claimants using Vedanta as a jurisdictional hook to sue both the parent company and subsidiary in England, and the claimants succeeded in demonstrating there was a “real triable issue”, nonetheless Zambia was held to be the “proper place” for the case. However, because the Court supported the finding of the first instance judge regarding the risks faced by claimants in accessing substantial justice in Zambia, the appeal was denied, and the case can proceed in England. 

This is a significant judgement, as it now means for the first time a UK company will face trial and potentially accountability in their home jurisdiction for environmental harms associated with operations of foreign subsidiaries. Lord Briggs delivered the judgement on four major issues: the potential for abuse of EU law; whether there was a real triable issue against Vedanta; whether England is the proper place for these proceedings; and whether there was a real risk that substantial justice would not be obtainable in that foreign jurisdiction. 

Why is this significant? For those following this case, and the appeals of Okpabi & Ors v Royal Dutch Shell Plc & Anor (Rev 1) [2018] EWCA Civ 191 and AAA & Ors v Unilever Plc & Anor [2018] EWCA Civ 1532 in the English courts, there are two major findings in this judgement that will likely impact future cases concerning parent company liability. Firstly, the reasoning behind the finding of a “real triable issue” between a foreign claimant and UK parent company, and secondly the primacy the Supreme Court placed on the significance of access to justice as a jurisdictional hook for claims in England. More...