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Case update 12 July 2023

Sewage scandal: Government will pay some of our legal costs

Good Law Project

The Government has already agreed to consult on expanding its plan to tackle sewage in coastal waters as a result of our legal challenge. We’re pushing for more action.

Last week, the High Court heard our legal challenge to the Government’s inadequate plan for tackling industrial-scale sewage dumping by water companies. We’re unlikely to get the judgment for several months. 

We have already had significant success through bringing this case before reaching the courtroom. The Government is now consulting on expanding its plan to include coastal waters, and it has agreed to pay part of the legal costs.

Despite this early win, we decided to support the claimants – Marine Conservation Society, Richard Haward’s Oysters and surfer and activist, Hugo Tagholm – to take this legal action to court. We believe that other problems with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan make it unlawful. In its current form, the plan allows water companies to continue discharging sewage into our rivers and coastal waters until 2050 – and in some cases beyond.

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The High Court hearing took place over three days from 4-6 July. 

A separate claim, brought by the conservation group, Wildfish, which also argues that the Government’s storm overflows plan is unlawful, was heard by the High Court at the same time as ours.

Marc Williers KC represented the claimants for our legal challenge. He opened by outlining the widespread public dismay and disgust at the scale of sewage discharges, the serious implications they have for human health and the environment, and the lack of action by the Government and water companies. 

He stated that the Government’s current plan fails to reduce the adverse impacts of sewage discharges on the environment, highlighting that the Secretary of State is required by law to adopt targets which align with the species abundance target in the Environment Act 2021. 

Williers said that none of the targets in the Plan require action to be taken to halt the decline of biodiversity before 2030 and that just 14% of storm overflows would be improved by this time.
He added that, by the end of the decade, almost two-thirds (62%) of storm overflows will not even have been assessed at the sites that are most important in terms of biodiversity.

In response, the Secretary of State’s barrister, Sir James Eadie KC, argued that the Plan did not necessarily need to satisfy the species abundance target, as it could be achieved through other means.

The High Court also heard how the rights of Richard Haward’s Oysters and Hugo Tagholm were being breached under the European Convention on Human Rights. The risk of contamination from routine discharges of sewage force Richard Haward’s Oysters to carry out costly monitoring and cleaning of their catch. Hugo Tagholm is placing his health at risk every time he enters the water to surf because of pollution levels.

The Defendant said that the Court should not conclude that there had been an unlawful interference with any of the claimant’s human rights because Richard Haward’s Oysters and Hugo Tagholm had not established that they had experienced any harm or that the state was responsible for it. Eadie added that, in any event, the Government is granted significant leeway in how it implements public policy – which balances resource costs and impacts on rights.

For the claimants, Williers went on to argue that the Public Trust Doctrine – an ancient English legal principle which says that the state has a duty to protect vital natural resources for the benefit of both current and future generations – should apply here.

But Eadie argued that the Public Trust Doctrine is about guaranteeing access to the sea or the seashore and that it does not oblige the Government to keep waters in fit ecological condition.

We now await the outcome of the hearing and we will provide an update as soon as the judgment is handed down. 

In the meantime, we will continue our work to protect our rivers, seas and natural environment. If you are able to support us, you can do so here.