The Court of Appeal has ruled in a case which establishes an important precedent for the setting of fines for breaches of environmental law.
Thames Water had appealed against a fine of £125,000 for a mistake which had led to pollution of the river Wandle. It claimed that the fine was excessive. The law in such cases makes the offence one of ‘strict liability’ – a conviction follows if the offence occurs. There is no defence.
On appeal, the Court set out fourteen factors which should be taken into account when determining the appropriate fine in such cases.
The most important of these are:
- The size of the fine depends on the facts of the case;
- The purpose of deterrence dictates that the fine should always exceed any expense avoided by the commission of a breach of the law;
- Mitigating factors would include a good past record of compliance, a timely admission of guilt and a good response after the event;
- Various factors would aggravate the seriousness of the offence, such as the noxiousness of the pollutant, the time the effects persisted, whether the health of people or animals was affected and so on; and
- It would be an aggravating factor if the company fell short of its duty, showed a poor attitude to compliance or response to the event and failed to heed advice, etc.
Taking into account Thames Water’s previous good record, the Court reduced the fine to £50,000.