The UK supreme court has ruled that a case brought by Zambian villagers against multinational mining company Vedanta and its Konkola Copper Mines must be heard in England.

The ruling, handed down by the UK’s final court of appeal on Wednesday, relates to case brought on behalf of more than 1,800 Zambian villagers against the UK-based miner and its copper mining subsidiary for their roles in the alleged pollution of a river in the Zambia.  

Vedanta is headquartered in London, although the company was originally founded in Mumbai, India. Vedanta entered SA in 2011 when, through its subsidiary Vedanta Zinc International, it bought up Anglo American’s zinc assets in the Northern Cape, The company has significantly invested in these assets since, and under President Cyril Ramaphosa’s $100bn investment drive, Vedanta has committed to investing a further $1.2bn in the country.

In the two-day hearing, which took place in January this year, the UK supreme court was asked to decide whether the case can be heard by the courts in England.

The villagers allege that their water sources and farming land have been contaminated by the copper mining operations of Konkola and claim to have suffered continual pollution since 2004, causing them to fall sick and lose their crops. They asked that their claim be tried by the English courts because Vedanta should bear equal legal responsibility, given its control over its mines and alleged knowledge of the pollution.

The claimants also argued they would be unlikely to achieve justice in the Zambian courts. Vedanta opposed this.

The villagers, represented by human rights law firm Leigh Day, won their case in the high court in May 2016. Vedanta appealed, but the ruling was upheld in October 2017. The company then took the matter to the supreme court in January where it argued that the claims should be tried in Zambia because the claimants are Zambian and because the damage occurred in Zambia.

On Wednesday, the UK supreme court dismissed the appeal. In its judgment, the court agreed that England is not the proper place for the trial of these claims, but found that the high court was entitled to conclude that there is a real risk that “substantial justice” will not be obtainable in Zambia.

The court also also ruled that companies can be held to account for the commitments they make publicly regarding their subsidiaries and their commitments to the communities they serve. In Vedanta’s case, the commitments were made in their global policies and other published material in which it claimed to have control and responsibility over Konkola and also asserted its responsibility for the establishment, implementation, monitoring and enforcement of group-wide environmental control and sustainability standards.

“I hope this judgment will send a strong message to other large multinationals that their corporate social responsibility policies should not just be seen as a polish for their reputation, but as important commitments that they must put into action,” said Martyn Day, senior partner at Leigh Day.

In a statement put out by Konkola’s GM for corporate affairs, Eugene Chungu, he said the judgment is a procedural one and relates only to the jurisdiction of the English court to hear these claims. “It is not a judgment on the merits of the claims. Vedanta and Konkola Copper Mines will defend themselves against any such claims at the appropriate time.”