VICTORY FOR BIOWATCH IN LANDMARK LEGAL CASE

June 3, 2009

Activism, Health, NGO\'s

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Johannesburg, 3 June 2009

 

Constitutional
Court Justice Albie Sachs today handed down judgment in the Biowatch
case.  Calling the case “a matter of great interest to the legal
profession, the general public, and bodies concerned with public interest
litigation”, Justice Sachs set aside the costs order awarded against Biowatch
in favour of Monsanto and further awarded legal costs in the High Court
hearings in favour of Biowatch and against the state. The bench of eleven
judges was unanimous in its decision.

 

Biowatch is
a small South African non-governmental organisation campaigning in the public
interest for sustainable agriculture, biodiversity, biosafety and farmers’
rights. For many years it has been opposing the rapid spread of genetically modified
(GM) crops in South African agriculture. It argues that there are health and
environmental risks resulting from this technology, and that it diminishes food
security and food sovereignty.

 

The
judgement in the
Constitutional
Court
was the culmination of a nine-year legal
battle. In 2000, the state had consistently refused to provide Biowatch with
requested official information about the planting of GM crops in
South Africa. Biowatch was forced to take legal
action to exercise its constitutional right to this information. In the High
Court Biowatch won the right to 8 out of 11 categories of requested
information. The acting judge, however, felt that Monsanto – a giant
multinational pushing GM crops onto the South African market – had been forced
to join the case and that Biowatch should therefore pay its legal costs. This
anomaly seemed to fly in the face of justice, but even so, Biowatch lost its
appeal in the same court to set aside this costs order. Biowatch was also
refused leave to appeal in the Supreme Court of Appeal in
Bloemfontein. Exercising the costs order would
have weakened if not destroyed Biowatch as an organisation, something which
Monsanto seemed bent on doing.

 

The Constitutional Court was able to hear the appeal, as the
case involved constitutional rights.  Justice Sachs stated that the High
Court had “misdirected itself in the whole matter of costs” through failing to
consider the constitutional implications.  This enabled the
Constitutional Court to pronounce on costs matters in
the High Court in cases of constitutional import. Normally High Court judges
assume full discretion in the matter of costs awards. Justice Sachs said that
the High Court’s decision was “demonstrably inappropriate on the facts, and
unduly chilling to constitutional litigation in its consequences.”

 

The case
has important implications for South African justice. It means that 
organisations acting in the public interest will be able to litigate to gain
their rights without necessarily expecting the “chilling effect” of costs
orders against them. This bodes well for public confidence in the South African
legal system.

The case
clarifies for the legal profession that constitutional rights need to be taken
into account when costs orders are made.  The Biowatch case is already
being discussed widely in legal circles.

 

“This
verdict is a victory for Biowatch but also sets an important precedent for all
those promoting the public interest”, said Rose Williams, Biowatch’s director.
“Biowatch activities can now continue without the threat of Monsanto putting an
end to them. We wish to thank the many hundreds of individuals and
organisations who have supported us during the course of the case, as well as
the Legal Resources Centre for representing us so ably.”

 

Please see
the Biowatch website for further background at www.biowatch.org.za

For further
information on the case, telephone Biowatch director Rose Williams on +27 82
4355812

 

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