Environment Agency V Glastonbury Festival
Glastonbury Festival is the world’s largest music festival. Whereas around 1,500 people attended the first event in 1970, the festival now attracts up to 175,000 people each year.
Given the size of the festival it is hardly surprising that the organisers face significant challenges in organising the event in such a manner as to ensure that they comply with all statutory obligations, including legislation intended to protect the environment.
In June 2014 a pollution incident occurred when untreated sewage escaped from a temporary storage tank. Human waste entered Whitelake River resulting in harm to aquatic life.
The Environment Agency brought a prosecution on the basis that there was breach of the Environmental Permitting (England & Wales) Regulations 2010. The offence was causing or knowingly permitting a water discharge activity. As there was no doubt that the festival organisers had caused the discharge it comes as no surprise that they pleaded guilty to the offence.
Since 1 July 2014 the Courts have been required to follow guidelines issued by the Sentencing Council when considering the penalty which Defendants should face upon conviction for environmental offences.
The guidance makes it plain that the outcome “must be sufficiently substantial to have a real economic impact which will bring home to both management and shareholders the need to improve regulatory compliance.
The Court is required to determine what is termed the offence category which in turn involves consideration of the degree of culpability giving rise to the commissioning of the offence.
Culpability may be deliberate (in cases of intentional breach of the law), reckless, negligent or low (in cases where an offence is committed with little or no fault on the part of the organisation as a whole).
Once the degree of culpability is established by the Courts it is then necessary to assess the severity of the harm which the offence has given rise to. Harm is determined by reference to four categories ranging from category 1 in the most serious cases down to category 4 where there was a risk of minor, localised adverse effects or damage to water quality.
As there was a significant dispute between the prosecution and defence as to the most appropriate classification of this offence the Court ordered what is termed a Newton hearing so that the Court could decide this point.
The Environment Agency considered this to be a serious pollution incident which had a significant impact on water quality and the fish population and contended for a sentence based on a finding of negligence on the part of the festival organisers and category 1 level harm.
The Court concluded that the festival organisers’ actions were not negligent and that there was low culpability. The Court also concluded that the appropriate harm category was category 2, namely that there was a significant adverse effect or damage to water quality.
Further argument ensued as to the appropriate starting point for determining the level of the financial penalty as, whilst the turnover of the festival was large, evidence was submitted to the Court to demonstrate that substantial sums were donated each year to charitable causes.
Ultimately, the total fine (which included consideration of a subsequent incident from 2015) amounted to £12,000 plus payment of a proportion (but not all) of the Agency’s costs in bringing the prosecution.
In passing sentence, Judge Simon Cooper sitting at Bristol Magistrates’ Courts on the 23rd and 24th May 2016 praised the festival organisers for their planning and their response to this incident, factors which undoubtedly also played a part in determining the level of the fine.
The case provides a timely reminder of the role of the sentencing guidelines and the need to fully prepare for sentencing hearings.
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