Landmark sewage ruling means water companies could face legal challenges over spills

Dark, rippled surface of a water body

A landmark Supreme Court judgment on 2 July could open up new legal avenues for water companies to be sued for sewage dumping incidents.

The ruling, described as a “sensational victory” by campaigners, follows a hearing in March 2023 in which United Utilities said the canal’s owners, the Manchester Ship Canal Company, were not entitled to seek damages for the release of untreated water into its extent, citing the 1991 Water Industry Act, which seemed to specify that only regulators can seek this kind of action.1

As not-for-profit Good Law Project explained,  the Environmental Law Foundation (ELF), backed by Good Law Project and represented by Hausfeld, brought an intervention in the hearing.2

Through ELF’s intervention it was demonstrated that sewage pollution was a significant problem for river and marine communities across the country and not just the Manchester Ship Canal. The judgment sets a significant precedent that has implications far beyond the Manchester Ship Canal.

The judgment overturned two previous rulings in the High Court and Court of Appeal in favour of United Utilities, who brought legal action against the Manchester Ship Canal Company in 2018.

Good Law Project said these previous rulings shielded United Utilities and other water companies against legal challenges from individuals and businesses affected by sewage discharges.

Figures published by the Environment Agency show that United Utilities has been one of the worst offending water company for sewage dumping since 2020. Last year the company discharged untreated sewage 97,500 times for a duration of over 650,000 hours.

Good Law Project’s interim head of legal, Jennine Walker, said:

“This is a sensational victory and a real boost to the clean up of our rivers, waterways and seas. It gives people stronger legal tools to turn the tide on the sewage scandal and hold water companies to account, after our toothless and underfunded regulators have failed to do so.

“We hope this landmark ruling empowers people and businesses to use the courts to challenge industrial-scale polluters like United Utilities, who have put profits and the shareholder interest over protecting our environment”.

Environmental Law Foundation co-director and casework manager, Emma Montlake, said:

“This was a ‘monster case’ as characterised by lead Counsel for the Manchester Ship Canal. Enormously complex, the outcome has the potential to be a game changer for communities up and down the land.

“Our water environments have been regularly polluted with untreated sewage, water biodiversity denuded and degraded with impunity by private water companies. A national scandal doesn’t come close to describing what we have put up with. This is a glad day for environmental justice, not just for the public, but for nature.”

[2] “Water companies could face raft of legal challenges after landmark sewage ruling”. From Good Law Project press office, Tuesday 2 July 2024.