Practice and Procedure


PUBLISHED August 1, 2003

A fine of ?200,000 for a serious local case of pollution caused by the discharge of sewage effluent into a river was manifestly excessive.Appeal against a sentence for an environmental offence. The appellant ('AWS') pleaded guilty to an offence under s.85(3)(a) Water Resources Act 1991 of causing the discharge of sewage effluent into a river. On 15 March 2002, Basildon Crown Court fined AWS £200,000. The discharge came from a sewage treatment works operated by AWS. It resulted from the de-threading of a bolt on a computer-operated gate that controlled the flow of sewage. The computer failed to recognise the problem and a safety monitor was not in place as it was being repaired. The judge concluded, inter alia, that: (i) the quantity of the sewage discharge was around 200 tonnes and had catastrophic effects on wildlife and fish; and (ii) AWS was grossly irresponsible in failing to have a safety system in operation and in failing to have the site manned to ensure the proper operation of the relevant equipment. AWS had 65 prior convictions including 64 for sewage discharge. In mitigation, the judge took into account the guilty plea, AWS's co-operation with the Environment Agency, its restoration of the river and improvement achieved. On appeal, the key issue was the degree of AWS's culpability.HELD: (1) A prudent water company would conduct ongoing risk assessments on the likelihood of polluting events occurring as well as on the extent of actual or potential damage if such events occurred. In the present case, a fail-safe system should have been in place. (2) The sewage discharge had been a serious local case of pollution. It had polluted over two kilometres of river and had done serious damage to fish and wildlife. The impact of the event would have been greater but for AWS's prompt remedial action. Other factors relevant to sentencing were the guilty plea and the steps taken by AWS to prevent a recurrence. The number of AWS's prior convictions was not of great significance in light of the scale of AWS's operation. (3) The fine had been manifestly excessive for this single offence, particularly when compared to the total fines imposed in R v Yorkshire Water Services Ltd (2001) EWCA Crim 2635. The fine was to be reduced to £60,000.Appeal allowed.

[2003] EWCA Crim 2243