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BDB Pitmans and Manchester ship canal win historic supreme court decision

BDB Pitmans and Manchester ship canal win historic supreme court decision


Historic Supreme Court ruling allows private property owners to sue water companies for unauthorised sewage dumping.

BDB Pitmans, representing the Manchester Ship Canal, has secured a landmark Supreme Court victory that establishes the right of private property owners to take legal action against water companies for dumping raw sewage into canals, rivers, and other bodies of water in England and Wales.

The Supreme Court's decision in The Manchester Ship Canal Company Ltd v United Utilities Water Ltd (No 2) clarifies that the Manchester Ship Canal can claim damages for unauthorised waste discharges. This ruling could lead to significant claims against sewerage undertakers for water pollution.

This case marks the latest development in a protracted legal battle between the Manchester Ship Canal, owned by the Peel Group, and United Utilities. The canal, built in the 1890s, stretches 36 miles from the Mersey Estuary to Salford Quays and features over 100 outfalls used by United Utilities to release effluent from its wastewater network. Although most effluent is treated, raw sewage is discharged during periods of network overcapacity. The Supreme Court noted that these discharges could be prevented with infrastructure improvements.

The unanimous Supreme Court decision overturns prior High Court and Court of Appeal rulings, enabling the Manchester Ship Canal to file nuisance or trespass claims for unauthorised sewage discharges even in the absence of negligence or deliberate misconduct. The Court emphasised that water companies cannot offload the clean-up costs of unauthorised discharges onto watercourse owners, stating that successful claims will prevent sewerage undertakers from externalising their operational costs onto victims of their unlawful activities.

Richard Langley, Senior Partner at BDB Pitmans, commented, “The judgment has significant consequences for the water industry and those affected by unauthorised sewerage discharges. Any watercourse owner now has the right to bring common law nuisance claims for water pollution and seek injunctions or damages for unlawful interference.”

The BDB Pitmans team, led by Richard Langley and supported by Litigation Senior Associate Judith Smyth, Legal Director Katie Smith, and Planning Consultant Nicholas Brown, instructed a leading Counsel team, including Thomas de la Mare KC and George Molyneaux from Blackstone Chambers, alongside Charles Morgan and Nicholas Ostrowski from Six Pump Court.

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