Major House of Lords ruling on water pollution offences

An important ruling concerning the meaning of the key water pollution offences under the Water Resources Act 1991 has been given by the House of Lords. The lead judgement of Lord Hoffman in Empress Car Company (Abertillery) Ltd v National Rivers Authority (House of Lords, 5 February 1998) provides a fresh analysis of what is meant by "causing" water pollution, and implies that causation can apply even where the polluter takes no active steps. The decision will require industry and sewerage undertakers to pay extra attention to maintaining pollution control equipment and other preventative measures if they are to avoid criminal prosecution.

Under section 85(1) of the 1991 Act, a person commits an offence if he "causes or knowingly permits any poisonous, noxious or polluting matter or any solid waste matter to enter any controlled waters." Compliance with a discharge consent is a good defence.

The wording repeats the formulation in previous legislation, and the lead 1972 decision of the House of Lords in Alphacell Ltd v Woodward held that the drafting implied two disti

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