Smokers 'denied legal aid'

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SMOKERS who believe they have been seriously injured as a result of the negligence of five tobacco companies have been 'unlawfully and irrationally' denied legal aid to pursue their claims, the High Court was told yesterday.

Michael Beloff QC, launching 28 test cases relating to a total of 227 claims, said the group action was potentially worth more than pounds 20m in compensation. But it could not go ahead without legal aid because the alleged victims - mostly from Liverpool but also from London and the South-east - lacked funds.

Gallaher, Rothmans, Imperial Tobacco, Philip Morris Inc and British- American Tobacco (BAT) are accused of negligence in failing to take steps to minimise the dangers of smoking, carrying out or publicising research into the risks, or giving adequate warnings of those risks.

Mr Beloff said that the Northern Area Legal Aid Committee had decided last year that the tobacco companies were prima facie in breach of duty, but was not persuaded that any individual in the group action could establish that they fell ill as a result of that breach of duty. It also decided that the cost of taking on the companies 'was not worth the candle'.

Mr Beloff described both decisions as 'curious and unreasonable' and asked Mr Justice Popplewell to order a fresh hearing before a different committee.

The hearing was adjourned until today.