Water companies can be sued for polluting, says supreme court

Manchester Ship Canal
The Manchester Ship Canal (Image: Denis Kelly |

A landmark ruling by the supreme court has found a water company can be sued for nuisance for polluting waterways with untreated sewage.

Campaigners and lawyers believe this will result in further court action being taken against water companies that pollute lakes, rivers, and other bodies of water.

The ruling related to a case involving the Manchester Ship Canal Company and water company United Utilities.

The supreme court overturned two previous rulings by the high court and court of appeal in favour of United Utilities, which said the Water Industry Act 1991 prevented water companies from being sued for nuisance.

The supreme court has now said water companies can be sued for nuisance even if there is “no negligence or deliberate misconduct”.

The Environmental Law Foundation, with backing from the Good Law Project, was allowed to make an intervention. It illustrated to the court the damage sewage pollution has on river and marine communities UK-wide.

A ‘monster’ case

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 gamechanger 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.” 

United Utilities initiated court action

The Manchester Ship Canal Company had only threatened to sue United Utilities and did not initiate court action.

But United Utilities took the case to court in an attempt to get a ruling that it could not be sued for nuisance for sewage pollution under the Water Act.

Good Law Project 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.

“This landmark ruling should empower 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.”

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