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Combined Sewage Overflow

Environmental Information and Water Companies

15th December 2015

After a 6 year battle through the Courts, that went all the way to the European Court of Justice, Fish Legal won its case against Yorkshire Water and United Utilities which opened up the water companies’ impact on the environment to public scrutiny for the first time.

In Fish Legal v Information Commissioner United Utilities plc Yorkshire Water Services Ltd and the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs [2015] UKUT 52 (AAC) the Upper Tribunal ruled that water companies in England & Wales are ‘public authorities’ for the purposes of the Environmental Information Regulations (2004) and so are under a legal duty to disclose environmental information they hold to the public.

The implications of this test case have been felt industry-wide.

Fish Legal originally asked the water companies for information about their CSO sewage discharges. That information request was refused.

Anglers and other campaigning groups can now ask water companies directly about sewage pollution and over-abstraction that damages rivers and coastal waters. In the past, companies refused to provide any information when asked, whilst others expressly refused to disclose information in line with this law. The Judges in this case ruled they were wrong to do so.

The water and sewerage industry causes significant damage to the environment every year. This is partly due to the very nature of what it does in treating sewage and abstracting water, but in many cases it can be due to mismanagement. The industry will now have to open up what it does to much greater public scrutiny.

A copy of the judgement can be read here: https://www.bailii.org/uk/cases/UKUT/AAC/2015/52.html

The Fish Legal case is now used as the test for determining whether a private company is a public authority for the purposes of the environmental information regulations. It has been successfully applied to other industries: https://fishlegal.net/case-studies/fish-legal-and-information-commissioners-office-v-eon-plc/

Guidance on the case is published on the Information Commissioner’s website here: https://ico.org.uk/media/for-organisations/documents/2021/2619024/pas-under-the-eir.pdf

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