Memorandum submitted by BOND
1. BOND (British Overseas NGOs for Development) is the UK membership body for non-governmental organisations (NGOs) working in international development. Established in 1993, BOND now has over 340 member organisations. BOND promotes, supports and represents the work and interests of the UK international development sector. It does this through the exchange of experience, ideas and information and, as the UK's network of international development organisations, supports members to strengthen the quality and effectiveness of the sector. BOND is officially recognised by the UK Government's Department for International Development (DFID). Most UK international development NGOs are registered charities, regulated by the Charity Commission.
2. Part of BOND's work is to act to ensure that international development NGOs have the best possible legal and regulatory framework to enable them to carry out their programmes. To this end BOND monitors law and regulation, both current and proposed, and advocates on behalf of members where required, to ensure that they are able to address the needs of their beneficiaries and partners.
3. A number of BOND members have expressed concerns recently about the impact of libel and privacy laws on their ability to further their campaigning work. This work is essential to fulfil their missions which encompass key development goals such as an end to poverty and inequality, and the promotion of health and environmental sustainability.
4. Many international NGOs are concerned not only with relieving poverty and furthering development goals, but also addressing the root causes of poverty, injustice and exclusion. To this end they often need to expose cases of corruption, exploitation, abuse or wrongdoing by individuals, governments or corporations. Bringing these cases to public attention plays an important role in raising awareness and holding individuals or organisations to account. It also exerts pressure on them to remedy such abuses, and on the relevant authorities to take any necessary action against them.
5. Some recent examples of this type of work by NGOs include the publishing of evidence of the exploitative working conditions endured by women producing food for UK supermarkets, and of human rights abuses perpetrated by UK mining companies on local communities in developing countries, such as forced evictions and pollution of water resources. The Chief Executives of such companies may be targeted in campaigns, as they are deemed to have ultimate responsibility for the abuses.
6. It is therefore essential that NGOs should be able to publish evidence on these matters without fear of being sued in the courts for abuse of privacy or libel. Public interest concerns ought to outweigh individuals' privacy and reputational considerations in cases of serious import such as are taken up typically by NGOs.
7. There have been cases where judges have found in favour of NGOs' right to publish information, deeming it to be in the public interest. However, the NGOs concerned have still had to incur substantial legal costs and are dependent on the discretion of an individual judge. Legislative reform in order to deter litigants from taking such cases to court in the first place would protect the ability of NGOs to carry out their legitimate campaigning work.
8. NGOs operate on restricted budgets and need to ensure that their funds are used wisely and in line with their charitable purposes, if appropriate. It is therefore particularly important that any financial penalties applied in cases of libel or invasion of privacy be restricted, as high penalties could have severe adverse effects on an NGO's ability to carry out its valuable charitable work.
9. Similarly, the high fees charged by some lawyers could be extremely damaging to an NGO if it loses a case and costs are awarded against it. The no-win, no-fee basis on which advice is often offered to litigants exacerbates this problem, as it encourages cases to be taken up without regard to the potential costs. For these reasons, restrictions on legal fees ought to be considered.
10. Finally, we would urge the Committee to include the above concerns in its report, along with those of other international NGOs and civil society groups, in order that such groups are better supported in their work by appropriate law and regulation.