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Miners may be able to sue for damages

MANY, or perhaps all, of the 7,000 miners employed in the 10 pits might be able to sue British Coal for damages, lawyers said yesterday.

They would have to show that they had lost money as a result of the decision to close the pits, which was ruled unlawful by the High Court on Monday.

Solicitors acting for the miners said the men could sue British Coal for breach of contract and ask for compensation worth several hundred pounds a week each. The miners had been on basic pay, which does not take account of bonuses and often comes to less than half their average earnings, their lawyers said.

Peter Woods, a solicitor with Stephens Innocent, which is acting for the mineworkers' unions, also said miners who had taken voluntary redundancy 'had a valid claim for reinstatement.'

More than a quarter of those employed at the 10 pits have opted for redundancy and they, too, could seek damages on the basis of lost earnings, he said. The unions had already launched concurrent legal proceedings in the Chancery Division of the High Court, seeking damages and will continue to persue the claim.

If the miners are successful, their damages could run to millions of pounds.

However, a specialist in employment law said the miners would face difficulties. Monday's High Court decision came in the domain of public law, whereas the action in the Chancery Division was based on private law. 'As soon as you go for damages in these cases, there are problems,' he said. 'It's not impossible, but it's pretty rare.'

Lawyers also accused Michael Heseltine, the President of the Board of Trade, of being 'close to contempt of court' through his refusal to re-start production at the pits.