After nearly two and a half years of legal proceedings a judge ruled that the English firm involved, Cape Plc, should be sued by its former staff in South Africa rather than in Britain. The case will now go back to the House of Lords, which has already ruled that another group of Cape workers who have the same illness can sue in Britain.
Campaigners say the UK is out of line with the rest of Europe on the issue, and that if Cape had been a German firm the workers would have had their cases heard by now.
If the appeal fails, the case will have to go ahead in South Africa, where such a group action has never before been heard. The lawyers for the workers, Leigh Day and Co, believe the South African courts could refuse to hear the case on the grounds that it should be brought in the UK.
Cape, which operated asbestos plants and mines in South Africa until the 1970s, has mounted a fierce rearguard action against the compensation claim.
Mr Justice Buckley said that South Africa was "clearly and distinctly the more appropriate forum" for a hearing into conditions in South Africa over 20 or 30 years and the individual histories of the claimants.
He had heard that Cape, which now works in asbestos removal, had sold its mines in 1979, and today had no interests in the country and very little documentation relating to the relevant period.
"I cannot find, on the evidence, that the South African courts would fail to deal with the matter appropriately. It is not for me, save in a clear and extreme case, to pass judgement on the merits or otherwise of another jurisdiction."
One in seven people in the Northern Cape town of Prieska, where Cape had a mill, now has asbestosis. In a five-year period, eight out of ten black miners who died in the nearby Koegas mine had the disease.
The former workers and residents were exposed to levels of asbestos dust up to 35 times the British legal limit. A government health inspector who visited Penge, in the Eastern Transvaal, found children under 12 with the disease.
Jessica Woodroffe, head of campaigns for the World Development Movement, which has backed the case, said it was "quite, quite wrong" that a company should be able to delay such a case as Cape had done. "The claimants in this case have shown enormous faith in British justice. They have waited and waited while the company has stalled and delayed," she said.Reuse content