The public’s ‘right to know’ what gets dumped into our rivers, received a welcome boost this week when the Court of Justice of the European Union granted public access to environmental information about the activities of the privatised water and sewage companies in the UK. This judgment came out of an ongoing case at the UK's Upper Tribunal which aims to overturn the decision in 2010 that denied the public access to information about water companies.
The Court of Justice ruled that as a matter of principle, water and sewage companies can be subject to disclosure obligations to the public, but that it is for our national courts to rule definitively on the facts in this case. Lawyers are hopeful that the judgment will lead to the establishment of public rights of access to environmental information held by water companies. The Upper Tribunal is likely to rule on this matter early in 2014.
Although they were once state-owned, water companies were privatised in the early 1990s, but have always considered themselves outside the UK’s freedom of information obligations.
This ‘secrecy blanket’ has protected parts of the water industry from proper public scrutiny, and in some cases from legal action.
Angling body, Fish Legal has therefore been battling through the courts for many years to get the industry – one of the biggest polluters of the water environment in the UK – to be required by the Environmental Information Regulations (EIRs) 2004 to reveal what they allow to spill, leak and seep into our lakes, rivers and coastal waters.
The legislation places a duty of disclosure on those subject to it and important safeguards – meaning the public can expect to receive complete and accurate information from organisations within a certain time frame. If they don’t comply, there is a formal process of complaint and appeal to the Information Commissioner, and through the courts if necessary.
William Rundle, Head Solicitor at Fish Legal, said: "This judgment sets out clear guiding principles for the continuance of our case. It is now clear as a matter of principle that the privatised Water and Sewage Companies may well be subject to public rights of access to environmental information, where certain criteria are met. This ground-breaking statement of principle will be subjected to an examination of the specific factual circumstances by the Tribunal which will give its final judgment shortly."