Sewage Suit Succeeds


The recent UK Supreme Court decision in the case of The Manchester Ship Canal Company Ltd v United Utilities Water Ltd has significant implications for environmental law and the regulation of water companies in the UK.  

On July 2, the Supreme Court ruled that United Utilities Water Ltd could be held liable for unauthorized discharges of untreated foul water into the Manchester Ship Canal, allowing the Manchester Ship Canal Company (MSCC) to bring private law claims in nuisance and trespass against the water utility company. 


This case centres around a long-standing dispute between MSCC, the owner of the canal, and United Utilities, which manages sewage for the North West of England. MSCC accused United Utilities of allowing untreated sewage to flow into the canal, leading to serious environmental and operational issues. United Utilities sought a court declaration to prevent MSCC from pursuing private law claims, arguing that such claims were precluded by the regulatory framework established under the Water Industry Act 1991, which governs the duties and enforcement mechanisms for sewage companies. 

The lower courts, including the High Court and the Court of Appeal, sided with United Utilities, effectively blocking MSCC’s private law claims. However, the Supreme Court’s decision overturned these earlier rulings, asserting that MSCC could indeed pursue common law claims for nuisance and trespass.  


The Supreme Court emphasized that while the regulatory framework under the Water Industry Act provides a means for addressing issues related to sewer discharges, it does not completely prevent the possibility of private law remedies. 

One of the key aspects of the Supreme Court’s judgment was its consideration of the landmark case of Marcic v Thames Water Plc (2003), which had previously established that claims for damages resulting from sewer flooding due to infrastructure inadequacies should be addressed within the regulatory framework, not through private law.  

The Supreme Court clarified that Marcic remains good law, but distinguished it from the current case by noting that Marcic involved claims for damages due to flooding, whereas the MSCC case involved unauthorized discharges directly into a watercourse, which could be addressed through private nuisance claims. 

The decision has been hailed as a victory for environmental accountability, with commentators noting that it could set a precedent for other landowners and environmental groups seeking to hold water companies accountable for pollution and unauthorized discharges. It also underscores the importance of maintaining private law rights alongside regulatory enforcement mechanisms to ensure comprehensive protection against environmental harm. 

In response to the judgment, MSCC expressed satisfaction with the outcome, highlighting the ruling as a crucial step towards ensuring that water companies are held responsible for their environmental impact. United Utilities, on the other hand, has indicated that it will carefully review the judgment and its implications for their operations and compliance practices. 


Overall, this Supreme Court decision reinforces the principle that statutory frameworks should not completely eliminate the availability of private law remedies, particularly in cases where environmental damage and public health are at stake. It opens the door for other affected parties to pursue similar claims, potentially leading to greater scrutiny and accountability for water companies across the UK. 

*This article is not legal advice but provides a general overview. The specific details of your case will determine the best course of action.