Alphacell Ltd v Woodward: HL 3 May 1972

The defendant operated a paper manufacturing plant which involved maintaining tanks of polluting liquid near the river, so that pollution would occur if they overflowed. There were pumps which ought normally to have drawn off the liquid and prevented the tanks from overflowing. The pumps became choked with brambles, ferns and long leaves: they did not function and an overflow occurred.
Held: The company’s appeal failed. The offence of allowing the noxious material to enter the watercourse is an absolute one, and a prosecutor need not prove even negligence.
The pollution was caused by what the defendant had done. The House analysed the sub-section: ‘The subsection evidently contemplates two things–causing, which must involve some active operation or chain of operations involving as a result the pollution of the stream; knowingly permitting, which involves a failure to prevent the pollution, which failure, however, must be accompanied by knowledge.’ The notion of ‘causing’ is one of common sense. Lord Salmon: ‘what or who has caused a certain event to occur is essentially a practical question of fact which can best be answered by ordinary common sense rather than by abstract metaphysical theory.’ Lord Wilberforce: ”causing’ here must be given a common sense meaning and I deprecate the introduction of refinements, such as causa causans, effective cause or novus actus. There may be difficulties where acts of third persons or natural forces are concerned . . .’ As to Impress: ‘it should not be regarded as a decision that in every case the act of a third party necessarily interrupts the chain of causation initiated by the person who owns or operates the installation or plant from which the flow took place.’

Lord Wilberforce, Lord Salmon
[1972] All ER 475, [1972] AC 824, [1972] UKHL 4
Rivers (Prevention of Pollution) Act 1951 2(1)(a)
England and Wales
ExplainedImpress (Worcester) Ltd v Rees QBD 1971
The appellants kept a fuel oil storage tank with an unlocked valve in their yard near the river. An unauthorised person entered during the night and opened the valve. The justices convicted.
Held: The appeal was allowed. ‘On general principles . .

Cited by:
CitedEmpress Car Company (Abertillery) Ltd v National Rivers Authority HL 22-Jan-1998
A diesel tank was in a yard which drained into a river. It was surrounded by a bund to contain spillage, but that protection was over ridden by an extension pipe from the tank to a drum outside the bund. Someone opened a tap on that pipe so that . .
AppliedWelsh Water Authority v Williams Motors (Cwmdu) Ltd QBD 1-Dec-1988
Oil was supplied to Williams Motors by Autobrec Oils and there was spillage from an offset fuel pipe out of sight of the delivery driver. Some of the spilt oil got into the storm drainage, and thus into a canal. Williams Motors were charged under . .
CitedExpress Ltd v The Environment Agency QBD 15-Jul-2004
The dairy appealed its conviction for allowing cream to enter a brook from the land of its customer.
Held: Polluting matter did not need to be itself noxious or poisonous, it was enough that it stained or tinted the water as did cream. Though . .
CitedCambridgeshire County Council v Associated Lead Mills Ltd ChD 22-Jul-2005
The prosecutor appealed dismissal of the charge of driving a heavy commercial vehicle on a road which was subject to a maximum weight restriction in breach of the 1984 Act. The company denied that it had any knowledge of the actual route taken by . .

Lists of cited by and citing cases may be incomplete.

Environment, Crime

Leading Case

Updated: 09 November 2021; Ref: scu.188777