Thames Water appeal against £2m fine dismissed

Thames Water Utilities Ltd appealed the £2m fine handed to it following a guilty plea to an environmental offence. The company was fined in December 2018 after it admitted causing pollution to a nearby brook. 

The incident took place in 2015 after a malfunction in an operative pump. Although alarms highlighted the malfunction and staff were aware, no immediate steps were taken, and 82,000 litres of untreated sewage discharged into a brook, killing a number of bullhead fish.

When imposing the fine, the judge considered the company’s previous convictions and fines, and its recklessness by failing to act. Thames Water argued the fine was excessive, and claimed the judge had failed to engage in the step-by-step exercise required by the sentencing guidelines, or to explain how he reached the figure of £2m. 

The appeal court upheld the fine. It commented that, while the judge’s sentencing remarks had failed to set out clearly how the fine had been reached and he had not engaged fully in the approach the sentencing guidelines set out, the same conclusion would have been reached regardless. The appeal court stated the offence was a breach of environmental law committed by a very large organisation (VLO) due to corporate recklessness, and thus the fine was not excessive or wrong.

Thames Water also asked the appeal court to note the difficulties faced by VLOs in assessing fines. It suggested an additional table should be added to the sentencing guidelines to provide ranges of fines for different categories of offence. The court stated it did not set out sentencing ranges by reference to figures because VLOs varied in size and nature. Consequently, the Sentencing Council had taken an informed decision to provide only general guidance for sentences in relation to VLOs. There was, therefore, no basis for amending such an approach, and the appeal was dismissed.

 

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