Lawyers in asbestos case agreed to destroy evidence

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The Independent Online

A leading London law firm agreed a deal to destroy documents which could be used by workers to claim compensation for asbestos-related diseases, The Independent has learnt.

A leading London law firm agreed a deal to destroy documents which could be used by workers to claim compensation for asbestos-related diseases, The Independent has learnt.

The City firm, Leigh, Day & Co, signed an undertaking with Cape plc to keep the agreement confidential and to resist any legal action to disclose the evidence. After claimants in other cases protested against the deal, Leigh, Day told Cape that instead of destroying the documents it would hand them back to the company.

During negotiations in reaching an out-of-court settlement at the High Court in London, Cape had initially told the solicitors that it would refuse to pay £7.5m compensation to 7,500 South African asbestos workers unless the evidence was shredded.

Although the company says that it will keep original copies of the papers, it could take prolonged litigation for a new set of claimants to obtain them. Legal sources point out that some claimants could die of mesothelioma - an incurable cancer caused by exposure to asbestos - before they enjoyed the benefits of compensation.

The Cape litigation was generally regarded as a landmark case for victims of asbestosis and the evidence was seen as potentially important for claims against other companies.

The number of Britons dying of the disease, which can take between 30 and 40 years to develop, is expected to increase from 3,000 a year to more than 10,000 in 15 to 20 years. Experts predict that more than 160,000 people will die of the cancer in the next 16 years.

Tony Worthington, the Labour MP for Clydebank and Milngavie, where scores of workers are known to be suffering from the disease, said that although Leigh, Day deserved credit for winning the compensation for South African workers, all the documents should be made publicly available.Mr Worthington said he would raise the matter in the Commons and had written to the Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, urging him to intervene in the case. The Clydebank asbestos group, representing workers with the disease, said it was "deeply concerned" about the agreement signed by Leigh, Day.

In a letter to Mr Worthington, Robert Dickie, the chairman of the group, said: "We consider this to be against the public interest. It is totally unacceptable to destroy documents which may have value in future cases." The deal may be a "breach of human rights", he added.

Sally Moore of Leigh, Day said that documents belonged to the company because the claim was settled out of court. Only papers disclosed at a legal hearing are regarded as "in the public domain".