Smart Water Magazine
Connecting Waterpeople

You are here

UK Supreme Court ruling opens the door to claims against water firms over water pollution

  • UK Supreme Court ruling opens the door to claims against water firms over water pollution

About the entity


The UK Supreme Court has issued a landmark decision against United Utilities, establishing a critical precedent for water pollution lawsuits, informs New Civil Engineer.

On July 2, the Supreme Court ruled that the Manchester Ship Canal Company, which owns the canal's beds and banks of a 36-mile waterway connecting Manchester to the Irish Sea, can pursue a claim against United Utilities for damages related to both past and future contamination of the canal.

The case arose from the Manchester Ship Canal Company (MSCC) accusing United Utilities of unauthorized sewage discharges into the canal, alleging that these discharges amounted to trespass and nuisance.

United Utilities is the sewerage undertaker for the North West of England and its network includes around 100 outfalls from which material emanating from sewers, sewage treatment works and pumping stations is discharged into the Manchester Ship Canal. When the system’s hydraulic capacity is exceeded, at least some of the outfalls discharge foul water into the canal, notes the Court’s press summary, stating that “there is no suggestion that these polluting discharges are caused by negligence or deliberate wrongdoing on the part of United Utilities. However, they could be avoided if United Utilities invested in improved infrastructure and treatment processes.”

United Utilities argued that such private claims were precluded by the Water Industry Act 1991, which mandates regulatory enforcement through Ofwat, the UK's water regulator. Initially, both the High Court and the Court of Appeal ruled in favor of United Utilities, stating that MSCC's claims were effectively blocked by the Act.

However, MSCC took the case to the Supreme Court, arguing that the statutory framework did not eliminate their common law rights of action in nuisance and trespass. The Supreme Court's ruling has now set a precedent, allowing private entities to pursue legal action against water companies for unauthorized discharges, even if regulatory frameworks exist. This judgment is expected to have far-reaching implications for environmental litigation, potentially leading to more lawsuits against water companies for pollution-related damages.

According to a United Utilities spokesperson, the company is “considering the implications of the Supreme Court’s ruling and the clarification of the circumstances in which private owners could bring proceedings in respect of discharges”, adding: “We understand and share people’s concerns about the need for change and we have already made an early start on an ambitious proposed £3 bn programme to improve over 400 storm overflows across the North West which would cut spills by 60% over the decade to 2030. These proposals form part of our business plan which is currently under consideration as part of Ofwat’s price review process.”

Subscribe to our newsletter

Topics of interest

The data provided will be treated by iAgua Conocimiento, SL for the purpose of sending emails with updated information and occasionally on products and / or services of interest. For this we need you to check the following box to grant your consent. Remember that at any time you can exercise your rights of access, rectification and elimination of this data. You can consult all the additional and detailed information about Data Protection.

Featured news