Boost for 'injured' smokers: High Court overrules block on legal aid to sue tobacco firms

THE HIGH COURT in London yesterday opened up the possibility of publicly-funded legal action against British tobacco companies accused of negligently causing smoking- related health problems. If the action goes ahead and proves successful, the damages claim could cost manufacturers more than pounds 20m and would prompt thousands of similar suits.

Mr Justice Popplewell overruled a decision by the Northern Area Legal Aid Committee refusing financial support to 27 people who have filed test cases relating to a total of 227 claims. The claimants have accused Gallaher, Rothmans, Imperial Tobacco, Philip Morris Inc and British- American Tobacco (BAT) of failing to minimise the dangers of smoking or give adequate warning of those risks.

Michael Beloff QC said that many of the claimants were seriously ill and three had died since the first application for legal aid was made.

The judge ordered that a different legal committee should re-examine the application for public funds. He said that he was driven to the conclusion that there had been a procedural irregularity during the original committee hearings.

He said that there were general issues common to claimants that the Northern Area committee seemed not to have addressed, relating to what the industry knew about the risks of smoking, when it knew about them and what companies did once they had that knowledge.