Only the regulator can hold excessive sewage dumping to account

On 27th June 2022, the Court of Appeal ruled in favour of United Utilities (UU), upholding the first instance judgment that private law claims, in trespass and/or nuisance, cannot be progressed against water and sewage undertakers, such as UU.

In reaching its conclusion, the Court of Appeal followed the reasoning of the lower court finding that any excessive dumping of sewage into the Manchester Ship Canal (MSC) was a matter for regulatory enforcement, subject to the provisions of the Water Industry Act 1991 (the WIA), not private litigation.

The Judgment ends the latest phase of a 12-year dispute between Manchester Ship Canal Co Ltd (MSC) and United Utilities (UU). It is understood that MSC are currently seeking permission to appeal.

In January 2022 Hausfeld, on behalf of a consortium of interveners including the Environmental Law Foundation and Good Law Project Limited, was granted permission to intervene in proceedings in the Court of Appeal.

Sarah Moore, Partner, comments:

“We are disappointed that the Court of Appeal ruled in favour of UU on this important issue. It means, water companies, such as UU, will remain insulated from private legal actions and remain subject to the enforcement by the Environment Agency to prevent the systemic and persistent dumping of raw sewage into the UK’s waterways - but which has to date proven inadequate.”

With summer starting, many of us will spend time in local rivers and the sea. The Environment Agency's latest reports make for grim reading: water companies released more than 2.7 million hours of raw sewage into UK rivers by in 2021.

In light of the Court of Appeal’s ruling, and pending any appeal, those affected by polluted waterways across the UK, must look to the newly created Office for Environmental Protection to hold water companies accountable.

Judgment in the matter of The Manchester Ship Canal Co Ltd v. United Utilities Water Ltd was handed down at 10.30am on Monday 27 June.