Court reduces fine for pollution incident

Elisa de Wit, from law firm Nicholson Graham & Jones, analyses recent environmental court rulings concerning business

The Court of Appeal has ruled that a fine of £200,000 for a serious local case of pollution caused by the discharge of sewage effluent into a river was manifestly excessive.

In the case of R v Anglian Water Services [2003], Anglian Water was prosecuted under Section 85(3)(a) of the Water Resources Act for discharging sewage effluent into a river.

The discharge arose from mechanical failure at the sewage works, namely the de-threading of a bolt on a computer operated gate that controlled sewage flow. The computer failed to detect that the gate was not rising. At the same time a safety monitor, normally present, was being repaired.

The judge in the Crown Court described the discharge as very substantial and noted that it had catastrophic effects on fish and wildlife.

She found Anglian Water grossly irresponsible in failing to have a safety system in operation and in its absence, not monitoring the site.

In setting the fine, the judge took into account:

  • the guilty plea;
  • co-operation with the Agency;
  • that river quality had been restored the following day; and
  • that the appellant had subsequently achieved improvement.

However, she noted that this mitigation meant the fine was smaller than it might have been - an offence under Section 85(3) carries an unlimited fine in the Crown Court.

On appeal, it was argued that the lack of blame should have been considered in determining the fine level and that in this case there was no causative culpability because the de-threading of the bolt was an unforeseeable event.

The Court of Appeal felt that this submission underestimated the extent of the obligation the legislation placed on undertakings such as Anglian Water and noted that the findings by the Crown Court judge undermined this stance.

Notwithstanding this view, the Court of Appeal considered the fine of £200,000 to be manifestly unreasonable and reduced it to £60,000.

In reaching its conclusion, the Court noted the case of Yorkshire Water [2001], which had its fine reduced on appeal from £119,000 to £80,000 after the consideration of a number of mitigating factors.

In the Anglian case, the Court noted that the company's previous 65 convictions were not of great significance when viewed in the context of its overall operations.

It also found that Anglian had acted promptly to limit the damage and had taken measures to prevent a recurrence, and that a plea of guilty had been entered.



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