Biowatch Heads Back to Court Over Monsanto (19/4/2007)

South Africa: Biowatch Heads Back to Court Over Monsanto
John Yeld
Cape Argus (Cape Town), April 19 2007

Environmental groups around the country will have their eyes fixed firmly on a full bench in the Pretoria High Court on Monday when it hears an appeal that could have a significant influence on how they operate in the future.

The court is to hear an appeal by Biowatch South Africa - a lobby group opposed to the introduction of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) into local agriculture and the environment - against a court order that it pay the legal costs of the South African component of transnational seed and chemical giant Monsanto.

The costs order, which raised legal eyebrows, was made against Biowatch during its successful application for a high court order compelling the Department of Agriculture to provide access to information that would shed light on the basis for the department's decisions about permitting GMO crops in South Africa.

Monsanto South Africa (Pty) Ltd joined these court proceedings to op-pose the application, arguing that it had to protect confidential information.

But Biowatch maintained that it did not require the release of any information protected in law as confidential.

In February 2005, Acting Judge Eric Dunn ordered that Biowatch be granted access to almost all the information it had requested.

He reaffirmed that the environmental group had a constitutional right to this information, that access to the information was in the public interest and that Biowatch had been compelled to apply to the court to exercise this right.

The judge also said that granting access to this information was a ne-cessary part of the proper administration of the Genetically Modified Organisms Act.

Instead of applying the general legal principle that costs should follow the outcome of litigation, Acting Judge Dunn ordered Biowatch South Africa to pay the legal costs of Monsanto South Africa (Pty) Ltd.

If the costs order stands, the environmental group could effectively be bankrupted, and similar groups would be wary of going to court in future, even if they believe they have a watertight case to argue.

Biowatch said it was appealing the costs order partly because no order had been made for payment of its legal costs, although it had been successful in its application.

In addition, the court had found that it had been compelled to apply to it for access to the information to which it was entitled.

"(Also), the costs order could have a deterrent effect on future public interest litigation because it creates the impression that if any part of a request for information is found to be insufficiently specific, even a successful litigant may be heavily penalised."

The Legal Resources Centre is actng on Biowatch's behalf in the appeal.


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