Doctors dished them out like sweets until, like opium, they got the masses hooked

The "opium of the masses" was how Professor Malcolm Laser, a psychopharmacologist, described benzodiazepines in an article in the late 1970s, one of the first to warn of the dangers of addiction.

By 1988 about 400,000 Britons were thought to be dependent and they remain the most commonly misused prescription drugs in Britain.

Now, however, the victims of addiction to tranquillisers such as Valium and Ativan are fighting back through the courts.

Reg Peart, a former atomic scientist, is one of those hoping to win compensation from the manufacturers.

Now 62, he began taking Valium in his late 30s for attacks of nausea and vertigo and has only latterly begun to piece his life back together. As his addiction took hold he lost his career, his marriage, and ended up one step from living on the streets. He says that at his lowest point he had a mental age of 10. The only reason the majority of people continue to take benzodiazepines for more than a few months, he believes, is because they are addicted.

When he was eventually, abruptly, taken off the drug in 1985 he went into cold turkey and given repeated electro-shock therapy to treat his withdrawal symptoms. It took until 1992 until he began to feel right, although tests showed he was still suffering 20 per cent intellectual impairment. "It was like a car running on low-grade petrol and then it runs out. The car won't start."

A number of the litigants in person suffer from agoraphobia and most do not work. Michael Behan, a 42-year-old former teacher, began taking Ativan in 1981 after getting panic attacks in lifts and underground trains. He says he became addicted in a couple of months, but his doctor took the view that his original illness was getting worse.

"You are told you are not addicted and you can't understand why you feel so awful if you stop taking it. So you stay on drugs year after year." The addiction lasted seven years.

However, where the ultimate responsibility lies is unlikely to ever be tested in a British court.

Up to 40 victims plan to press on with their claims against the makers of Valium and Ativan, despite the spectacular collapse of what was once tipped to be the biggest group negligence action ever.

The claimants are facing an uphill task to persuade the Court of Appeal to reverse a little-noticed decision last month in which Mr Justice Ian Kennedy, the High Court judge in charge of the litigation, struck out the remaining 70 writs in an action originally numbering more than 5,000.

Dr Peart and other claimants in the Victims of Tranquillisers group are protesting that the striking out was unfair because it was due to early problems in the organisation of the group action, not on the merits of individual cases.

If necessary, the complaint will be pursued to the European Court of Human Rights, Dr Peart said.

Last month's ruling was the latest of a series of blows to claimants in the benzodiazepine litigation which was launched in 1988 on behalf of thousands of Britons who had become dependent on Valium, Ativan and other tranquillisers and sleeping pills in the benzodiazepine group.

More than 17,000 people came forward and 13,000 were initially granted legal aid after a group of lawyers announced plans to sue the multinationals which developed and marketed the drugs on the ground that they should have known about the risk of addition and warned of it. The Government had warned in 1988 that prescriptions should be longer than two to four weeks.

But after the Legal Aid Board withdrew funding for claims against Roche Products, makers of Valium, Mogadon and Librium, in 1993 and for those against John Wyeth and Brother, makers of Ativan, the following year, the group litigation effectively collapsed.

Around pounds 35m of public money had been spent on legal costs without a penny reaching those who claimed to have been damaged through taking the drugs. The 70 had soldiered on, all bar one as litigants in person without legal representation. But Mr Justice Ian Kennedy struck their claims out as an "abuse of process" because, among other reasons, the Legal Aid Board had deemed them not reasonable to support and the costs of a complicated and strongly contested trial would be enormous compared with any small amounts of damages recovered. There had also been "inordinate and inexcusable delay" in progressing the cases.

The two drug companies, which have always strongly denied liability, and had hoped that the July decision would finally close the issue, promised they would not enforce orders for costs they have been granted since legal aid was withdrawn - but on condition that the 70 litigants do not appeal last month's ruling. About 30 are expected to conclude that they would risk losing assets such as their homes, but up to 40 consider they have nothing to lose.

In any event, claimants would have to exhaust all their UK legal remedies before applying to Strasbourg. The Legal Aid Board refused funding for the appeal last week.

Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights says that "in the determination of his civil rights . . . everyone is entitled to a fair and public hearing within a reasonable time". Dr Peart said the litigation had showed that the English legal system was totally inadequate to cope with group actions. In the United States drug companies have paid out billions of dollars to patients claiming they were injured by their products. In Britain no group action against a commercial company has reached trial, although the 1,200 victims of the Opren anti-arthritis drug secured pounds 2.275m in an out-of-court settlement in 1987.

The remaining claimants complain that they have been denied the right to pursue their actions because the costs would dwarf any damages. The root of the problem was that investigation of cases viewed as unwinnable both slowed down the progress of the case and clocked up enormous costs.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
love + sex
Life and Style
Tikka Masala has been overtaken by Jalfrezi as the nation's most popular curry
food + drink
News
people
Voices
A propaganda video shows Isis forces near Tikrit
voicesAdam Walker: The Koran has violent passages, but it also has others that explicitly tells us how to interpret them
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Ledger & Credit Control Assistant

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Ledger & Credit Control...

Recruitment Genius: Project Administrator

£16000 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Project Administrator is requ...

Recruitment Genius: International Trade Advisors - Hertfordshire or Essex

£30000 - £35379 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The company is based in Welwyn ...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Controller - Response Centre

£20000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Day In a Page

Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn