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Latest 02 July 2024

Water companies could face raft of legal challenges after landmark sewage ruling

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Water companies could face a tide of legal challenges, after a landmark judgment in the Supreme Court removes a block on lawsuits over pollution

In a landmark ruling, the Supreme Court has found that United Utilities can be held to account for the damage caused by sewage discharges.

The ruling has set a watershed precedent which now breaks the shield around polluting water companies – leaving them open to a potential deluge of legal action.

This major win comes after we supported the Environmental Law Foundation in a case the water company launched in 2018.

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United Utilities has been the worst offending water company for sewage dumping since current records began in 2020. Last year, the company discharged untreated sewage 97,500 times for a duration of over 650,000 hours.

The High Court and the Court of Appeal previously decided that United Utilities couldn’t be sued by the Manchester Ship Canal Company over sewage dumping. This left enforcement almost solely in the hands of the regulators, which the Tory government has starved of cash.

When this case reached the Supreme Court, the Manchester Ship Canal Company looked at the watertight legal arguments we had assembled and asked if they could hire our barristers. The case was so important that we also decided to support an intervention from the Environmental Law Foundation.

But this judgment has much wider implications beyond the Manchester Ship Canal.

“This is a sensational victory” said Good Law Project’s interim head of legal, Jennine Walker. “It gives us stronger legal tools to turn the tide on the sewage scandal and hold water companies to account, after repeated failures from our toothless and underfunded regulators.”

We’re now pressing ahead with our wider campaign to tackle the sewage scandal by supporting Jo Bateman in her legal action against South West Water. But we’re already looking for ways this Supreme Court judgment can help clean up the mess made by water companies pursuing profit over people and the planet.

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