Posted May 15, 2020. To settle a pandemic-related financial crisis at UMass Dartmouth, law faculty are not receiving research compensation in summer 2020. I will be away from my desk, May 16 to August 15. Blog posts will be sparse, and I will not receive email. On the upside, summer 🌞! If you need to reach me, please send a message through the faculty assistants’ office (Ms. Cain and Ms. Rittenhouse). Stay thirsty.

Thursday, May 7, 2020

Tort litigation as means to truth about the Troubles, authors propose; approach parallels access theory

A new article from researchers in Newcastle, England, posits the use of tort litigation to exonerate the right to truth in relation to the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

The authors are Conall Mallory, University of Northumbria at Newcastle,  Sean Molloy, Newcastle University, and Colin Murray, Newcastle University Law School.  Their article is Tort, Truth Recovery and the Northern Ireland Conflict, forthcoming 2020 in the European Human Rights Law Review and available on SSRN.  (Hat tip @ Steve Hedley, Private Law Theory.)  Here is an excerpt of the abstract.
Northern Ireland has no effective process to address [the] legacy of the human tragedy of decades of conflict. And yet during that conflict, and especially in the years since the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement 1998, people have employed multiple legal mechanisms to gain information about events which affected them and their loved ones.... One under-explored element of this complex picture is use of tort in legacy cases. Civil actions, supported by legal aid funding in Northern Ireland, provide a potential avenue for the discovery of information held by public bodies. Even unsuccessful actions can thus contribute new information about the events in question. Many of the harms inflicted during the conflict were torts as well as crimes, and this article assesses the extent to which these civil actions provide an ersatz mechanism for truth recovery, and challenges efforts to curtail such actions as a "witch-hunt."
Derry clash, Apr. 1971 (N. Ire. public record)
The right to truth is a piece in the puzzle of truth-and-reconciliation strategies as they have been implemented with variable success in post-conflict venues around the world.  The strategies are predicated on the notion that the revelation of truth has value in of itself to victims and survivors.  The conventional legal system, focused as it tends to be on compensation, often accomplishes nothing when compensation fails to materialize, or even nothing in the way of meaningful remedy if compensation does happen.  Thus truth proceedings are regarded as a hallmark legal innovation to clear the decks and allow peoples and nations to move forward.  So well regarded is this principle that human rights instruments and institutions have come to recognize "the right to truth" as a human right, a necessary corollary to the right to life.

In this article, the authors lament that there has been no effective, systematic truth process following the Troubles.  To the contrary, they posit, the U.K. government has as often thrown up roadblocks to truthful revelation.  A patchwork of legal mechanisms has nonetheless allowed truth to surface, they explain, and they review the efficacy of legal actions such as human rights litigation and information requests under the U.K. Freedom of Information Act.

Tort litigation offers another, as yet underutilized avenue, they propose.  For reference, they point to the Alien Tort Statute in U.S. jurisprudence, though, I add, it has lately fallen on hard times in the U.S. Supreme Court; and they point to U.K. agreements in recent years to pay claimants in Kenya and Cyprus in compensation for violent colonial suppression in the 1950s.  Survivors of the Troubles, even those who were children at the time, may press tort claims, such as battery, trespass, and civil conspiracy, against violent actors in the Troubles, whether British security officials, IRA fighters, or other paramilitarists.

British Army patrol in Kenya during 1950s Mau Mau Uprising
(Imperial War Museums)
Tort litigation in the proposed vein is not a new idea, but stumbles amid many hurdles, not the least of which is sovereign immunity.  But immunity can be overcome in actions against persons, whether non-governmental or gone rogue.  And there is ample evidence of both in the history of the Troubles.  An IRA defendant, for example, may be a purely private actor, and a British official who inflicted violence might be sufficiently dissociated from government policy as to negate immunity.  There's a fine line anyway between tort litigation and human rights claims, see Stefan Somers's whole book on the subject, the two more or less coinciding in the United States in the area of "constitutional tort."

Anyway, the authors claims, the plaintiffs in these tort actions do not actually have to win; they just have to survive dismissal to get to discovery.  Because their aim, remember, is truth, not compensation.  So the authors are really proposing that tort litigation be used for its discovery methods, regardless of the outcome of the case.  They moreover suggest that the litigation might shake loose answers from the government to avoid the prospect of compensation, or at least the cost of litigating, and they illustrate that having happened already in select cases.

The idea of using tort litigation for its discovery mechanism rather than with the aim of compensation is dicey, but not wholly objectionable.  Ethically a lawyer should not file an action that isn't winnable upon some rational theory.  But these cases wouldn't fail that test; there's no rule against having a multitude of aims in the fight, even if you think you'll lose on decision.  Of course, American tort lawyers are often criticized (whether it's true or not, discussion for another day) for playing fast and loose with that understanding, using the litigation process and its hefty transaction costs to shake down defendants on barely credible claims.  Here at least the aim is truth, rather than a pay day, so an aim with some sanction in civil rights.

The proposed litigation strategy reminds me of the work I've been doing lately (e.g., U.S. reform proposal) on the freedom of information, or right to access to information, in South African law.  There, a provision of law allows access to private sector records upon stringent prerequisites, namely, the exoneration of human rights.  The right to truth is one right that should fit that bill, a co-author and I have posited (abstract on SSRN, blog).  In a conventional South African FOI case, the courts allowed access to the records of a public steel company to investigate the exploitation of Apartheid labor.  It's a short leap from there to investigation of a private company with similarly sinister secrets.

Moreover, the South African courts have put some mileage on the private-sector-access law as a tool for "pre-discovery," before tort litigation is filed, to help a would-be plaintiff test the evidentiary waters.  That approach can only make litigation more efficient, more than one South African court has reasoned, by filtering out non-viable causes.

Those twin rationales, the right to truth and the validity of pre-discovery, seem incidentally to countenance the repurposing of tort law to the aim that Mallory, Molloy, and Murray here propose.  A comprehensive and government-sponsored approach to truth-finding would be more satisfying to those of us who like to call something what it is.  But maybe this is a way that tort law can exert policy pressure to bring about, in time, a coherent legal approach to the right to truth.

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