A disappointing outcome for those who want to protect our rivers and seas from sewage dumping

This morning, the Court of Appeal sided with a major water company in the North West, United Utilities, in a case over the legal routes available to people to challenge its discharging of sewage into our rivers and seas. United Utilities had sought a declaration that would effectively bar people from bringing private claims against water companies that dump sewage into rivers and seas.

Good Law Project led a group of interveners in this case. We aimed to show the Court the importance of keeping legal routes open for people directly affected by water companies dumping sewage into rivers across the country. We also sought to demonstrate to the Court the wider context of the dispute over sewage dumping: its prevalence (over 400,000 discharges in England in 2020 alone); the weakness of the regulators; and the near-impossibility of enforcement action against massive water companies that are largely acting unchecked.

Unfortunately, the Court of Appeal has decided that even if sewage discharges are unauthorised – as they so often are – the law does not allow people directly impacted to bring private law claims against the companies concerned. The only option for a remedy is through the environmental regulators. But, sadly, after years of inaction by the Environment Agency and the water regulator Ofwat, which have been chronically underfunded by the Government, it is already very difficult for people to hold water companies to account for this disgusting practice. 

The Court accepted that the practical effect of certain provisions of the Water Industry Act 1991 (which is meant to regulate the discharges) was “rather unclear”, but concluded that United Utilities’ reading of the law was the right one. 

There’s no doubt about it, this is a disappointing outcome. As we were interveners in the case, the next steps are for the Manchester Ship Canal Company, the claimant, to make. If they decide to appeal the case to the Supreme Court, we will consider intervening again to ensure the Court is provided with the crucial context as to the importance of these issues.  

We are very grateful for the support we have received on this case from our legal team at Hausfeld LLP (effectively on a pro bono basis) and from our barristers Tom de la Mare QC and George Molyneaux at Blackstone Chambers (who acted at rates far below their commercial rates). This meant we did not need to crowdfund to cover the costs of this intervention. 


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The full list of organisations involved in the intervention in this case were: