Spanish fishing court victory

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Spanish owners of more than 100 fishing vessels got the go-ahead yesterday to claim millions of pounds in compensation for being illegally barred from "quota hopping".

Three judges ruled in the High Court that the UK's breaches of European law, which prevented the Spanish operators fishing against the UK quota, were sufficiently serious to give rise to liability for damages. The UK taxpayer will have to pick up the bill.

But the judges refused to allow a claim for punitive damages, rejecting the accusation that the former Conservative government had acted in bad faith or arbitrarily when drawing up restrictions on British registrations of Spanish vessels in the 1988 Merchant Shipping Act.

In a landmark case brought by one of the operators, Factortame Limited, in 1992, the European Court of Justice ruled that the nationality conditions in the Act were inconsistent with EU treaty obligations on free movement of labour and capital. A total of 97 owners and managers of 107 vessels stand to gain from yesterday's ruling. Patrick Stewart, secretary of the Clyde Fishermen's Association, blamed the incompetence of the previous government but said the agreement secured by Labour at the Amsterdam summit would not help the situation. He predicted that there would be an increase in quota-hopping.

A Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food spokesman said officials would study the judgment carefully before deciding whether to appeal.