Nearly 30,000 victims of toxic dumping in the Ivory Coast may be deprived of £30m compensation after an African court froze the bank accounts into which the money has been paid.
British lawyers for the victims are concerned that the legal action is the first step in the expropriation of the funds, released to the claimants this year by Trafigura, a London-based international oil trading company.
The freezing order was granted by the courts of the Ivory Coast in favour of a man claiming to represent the interests of all the victims.
Martyn Day, the British lawyer who helped settle the compensation claims with Trafigura, said that he was extremely worried that the compensation will now be transferred to the local representative, who he said "may well be a front for a senior but shadowy figure within Ivorian society".
Yesterday the High Court in London issued an order reflecting its "deep concern" that the compensation might fall into the wrong hands.
Mr Justice Alistair MacDuff ordered the £30m be held in trust by the London-based solicitors, Leigh Day & Co, "exclusively and solely for the claimants".
He said that any money "distributed" to anyone unnamed in the September agreement would amount to "frustration of the order of the High Court".
Trafigura paid out the £30m after a three-year legal action in which it was accused of responsibility for injuries and illness to thousands of inhabitants of Abidjan, the Ivory Coast capital, after subcontracting the disposal of toxic chemicals.
Over the last three years Trafigura has issued a series of public statements saying the waste, carried by a ship called Probo Koala, had been routinely disposed of and was harmless. Trafigura dismissed complaints of illness in a lawsuit brought by 30,000 inhabitants of Abidjan, before agreeing to pay them £30m in compensation in a confidential out-of-court settlement.
The oil firm conceded in a public statement that the toxic fumes could have caused "flu-like symptoms" to the inhabitants. But it was accepted in a statement agreed by both sides that expert evidence did not back the claims of deaths, miscarriages or serious injuries.
On 24 September Trafigura paid the settlement into two Leigh Day client accounts at the Société Générale bank in Abidjan covering the full agreed compensation for the injuries and illness. A system of payment was worked out with the bank through payment cards and Pin numbers for the victims, as virtually none of them have bank accounts. But just before the card distribution process was complete on 22 October, a freezing order was served on Leigh Day and the bank in relation to the accounts.
And yesterday the Ivory Coast state prosecutor supported the application to pay the money to the third-party representative's association.
The court heard the final submissions yesterday and is likely to give its judgment tomorrow.
Mr Day, senior partner for Leigh Day, said: "This is deeply worrying news. Trafigura paid to us the compensation very promptly and the payment process had been working extremely well. Now, however, it would appear there is a very serious risk that all this will come to nought and the compensation monies will simply disappear and our clients will see none of it.
"Such an outcome would be deeply depressing and very, very upsetting for our 30,000 Ivorian clients who were so pleased with the outcome of the claim."Reuse content