The expert environmental and angling lawyers at Fish Legal, who act on behalf of over 1,000 angling clubs throughout the UK, have highlighted the low level of fines paid by offenders in the UK for polluting watercourses.
Fish Legal has this week written to the Sentencing Council welcoming its proposals for tougher pollution penalties, particularly for large companies, but urging it to go much further.
The solicitors’ robust response to the Sentencing Council’s consultation on its environmental offences guidelines coincided with news from the USA of a paper company being fined a total of $3.3 million for polluting the Pearl River in Louisiana, killing 160,000 fish. This is many times greater than the amount that would be currently possible in the UK.
Even under the Sentencing Council’s beefed-up proposals, the absolute maximum fine for the same offence in the UK would be £2 million, provided there were not any mitigating factors such as an early guilty plea to reduce it. Fish Legal has direct experience of many pollution-related criminal prosecutions through its work taking civil claims on behalf of its member angling clubs, fisheries and riparian owners. Its lawyers have repeatedly seen multi-national companies fined a few thousand pounds for offences which cause significant and long-term damage to the water environment and to fisheries.
Fish Legal points out in its response that if we are effectively to deter, punish and remove financial gain from offenders then the range of fines must go much higher for big business polluters. Water and sewage companies are some of the worst repeat offenders and this is because it ‘pays to pollute’. It would seem that some of them would rather pay a fine than spend many millions more on upgrading their infrastructure – this commercial saving is financial gain that needs to be removed so they are incentivised to respect the environment and stop polluting.
Fish Legal, which acts as the legal arm of the Angling Trust in England, has called for the Council to:
• increase the levels of maximum and minimum fines still further
• include absolute minimum levels under which fines shall not go no matter what
• remove upper limits for the most serious offences to enable sentencers to sanction the worst offenders appropriately and remove financial gain
• ensure that companies are properly assessed for their ability to pay so that the bigger the company, the higher the fine
• to extend the review of offences to the Salmon and Freshwater Fisheries Act 1975, which was not included, so prosecutors focus on the injury caused to fish and not just technical breaches of permits
• to take into account the cumulative impact of multiple apparently minor pollution incidents that still seriously affect biodiversity and lead to the ‘death of rivers by a thousand cuts’
• ensure that it is not cheaper to pollute and pay the fine than to invest in pollution prevention measures and remain within the law
• to take into account the previous record of a company, including offences which were not prosecuted (e.g. repeat warnings or other enforcement measures)
• to consider the impact of water pollution on the amenity value for angling
• to ensure that angling clubs and those who own or lease fishing rights are consulted about any measures to pay compensation or take remedial action
• to hear evidence from angling interests and others directly affected by pollution when determining the level of fines.
Mark Lloyd, chief executive of the Angling Trust and Fish Legal said: “We welcome the Sentencing Council’s proposals but urge them to go further to provide a really powerful deterrent to those who spill toxic waste into the water environment. We urge them to stand firm against the inevitable pressure from companies who will call for fines to be maintained at their current pathetically-low level. Anglers are fed up with seeing corporate fat cats walking away from the courts with little more than a slap on the wrist for polluting rivers, lakes and coastlines. The health of these waters is vital for the well-being of everyone in the country, and particularly for several million anglers and the angling industry which employs 37,000 people.”
William Rundle, Head Solicitor at Fish Legal, said: “Pollution is endemic throughout the UK with farmers and water companies causing some of the worst damage to water bodies in the country. We believe this is because low fines provide little deterrent, and paying them can be less expensive than taking the appropriate measures to avoid offending in the first place. Pollution affects us all, it causes untold damage to the environment, creates public health risks, and damages the private interests of others. It is – frankly – scandalous that the justice system imposes such small fines and sentencing needs to get much tougher if this situation is going to improve. To a large extent it depends on the Environment Agency doing better investigations and putting accurate information before the courts that shows the full impact of pollution on the environment and those directly affected, such as anglers.”