Sailesh Mehta successfully prosecutes Thames Water Utilities Ltd resulting in 20m fine

March 22, 2017

Thames Water Utilities Ltd received its “biggest fine in history” today.  Over a two year period the company polluted the River Thames by pumping more than 4 billion litres of untreated and partially treated sewage into the river.

The actions of Thames Water is not only one of the biggest pollution incidents in the UK, it is also one of the Environment Agency’s largest prosecutions (second in size only to the Buncefield Explosion prosecution).  The Court acknowledged the huge cost to the environment and the affect the repeated pollution incidents had on local residents and the use of the river.

In 2016 Thames Water pleaded guilty to a series of water pollution incidents that resulted in hundreds of fish dying, and which significantly affected plants and animal life in the river.  A cray fisherman lost three years’ crop, a farmer had to fence off the water from his herd to prevent illness and the local boat clubs regularly witnessed raw sewage, including condoms and tampons floating past their clubs.  The charged atmosphere in the public gallery court room during trial highlighted the strength of feeling  of local people affected by Thames Water’s actions. 

Over the years, the number of environmental prosecutions  have increased, with ever increasing fines and custodial sentences.  This prosecution and the Judge’s interjections during a lengthy sentencing hearing suggests that the trend is likely to continue.  A further trend is the prosecution authorities’ greater willingness to pursue company directors for the offences of their companies. – the forecast is that there will be an increase in the number of directors prosecuted for environmental and other regulatory offences.  

In the September 2004 Memorandum from the Environmental Industries Commission (EIC) it was stated that “making directors and other decision-makers in a company responsible for the activities of their companies is increasingly regarded as an effective mechanism for increasing standards”.

Already in other areas of criminal law we have seen the rise in directors and former directors facing serious criminal charges and significant fines.

This case is likely to raise the following questions:  how is “light touch” regulation working in relation to such prolific pollution incidents, and how is it that directors are not in the dock more often when a corporation behaves in a criminal way for so long?   

This was one of the largest and most complex environmental prosecutions of its type, and has resulted in a record fine for the defendant.  The stated aim of the Court was to ensure that the Directors and Shareholders of Thames Water Utilities Limited “sat up and took notice” of the fine imposed.  The Court was keen to ensure that the local residents were compensated as far as possible and that their water bills will not be going up to pay for the fine.  Thames Water gave that assurance to the Court.