Residents successful in ‘David & Goliath’ battle

After a long and arduous fight, 1,350 residents living near Mogden Sewage Treatment Works in Isleworth, Middlesex have won their mammoth battle against Thames Water Utilities Limited in relation to odour nuisance. The residents live in an area which comprises Hounslow, Whitton, Twickenham and St Margarets as well as Isleworth.

At the High Court today (8 December), Judge Mr Justice Ramsay handed down the judgment which holds Thames Water liable for breach of duty in relation to nuisance caused by odour from the Mogden plant. In relation to allegations of negligence surrounding their management and operation at the Works, Mr Justice Ramsey significantly found that Thames Water had, since 1990, failed to have a long term odour management and investment strategy to deal with odour from the site.

Mr Steve Taylor, one of the lead claimants, says:

“I hope this case shows that David can take on Goliath in our legal system and win. The case was never about money; it was about holding Thames Water to account for the problems that it has caused us over the last 10 years. The huge impact on ordinary people’s lives and on the environment cannot be underestimated. I am extremely grateful to Neil Stockdale and the Environment team at Hugh James as well as our Counsel, Stephen Hockman QC and John Bates, for relentlessly pursuing this case on our behalf. I believe this case is the first of its kind in the UK and the judgment in our favour will have a major influence on the way the managers and owners of sewage treatment works in England and Wales run their businesses”

Although this is a significant victory for the residents, the stark warning is that happy endings like this one might not be possible in the future. The Government plans to change legislation, effectively ending the current ‘no win no fee’ system, exposing claimants to huge upfront financial risks rather than being allowed to recover fees at the end if successful. This will lead to claimants having to take responsibility for both their own expenses and the other side’s costs.

Mr Taylor continues:

“I’m shocked and very disappointed about the Government’s plans to change this legislation. The stature and financial clout of Thames Water meant we were only able to take this case forward because of the current ‘no win no fee’ system. Changing this system will deter others in similar situations to ours from bringing cases against big companies and will be a real obstacle for ordinary people to access justice. I would ask the government to think very carefully about the effect that this might have on people’s lives.”

Neil Stockdale, the partner at Hugh James who led the team dealing with the case said, "This result is a vindication of the residents’ genuine desire to protect their environment from blight. Unfortunately however, cases like this will no longer be possible in the future if the Government’s proposed reforms to the funding of litigation are enacted next year.

“The Government is proposing that individuals take cases like this at their own risk; people just can’t afford to take such risks, particularly when they are up against the likes of Thames Water. If people don’t stand up now and oppose the Government’s bill they will forever be powerless to take action to protect their legal rights in all sorts of cases. What the Government is suggesting is a real scandal and the biggest threat to access to justice we have ever witnessed in the UK.”

Damages were sought against Thames Water for nuisance caused by odour and mosquitoes but claimants also sought for an injunction to prevent continuing nuisance. Today, the Judge has accepted 18 of the 30 allegations of negligence that were made in addition to finding that Thames Water had breached the claimants’ rights under the Human Rights Act, specifically Article 8 of the convention which protects the enjoyment of home and family life.

The Judge said that the claimants had been caused to suffer significant inconvenience and annoyance from odour over and above that which was inevitable.

In relation to Human Rights, High Court Judge Mr Justice Ramsay says of his decision:

“Because I have held that Thames Water failed to carry out the work and conduct the operation at Mogden Sewage Treatment Works with all reasonable regard and care for the interests of other persons, including the claimants, it follows in my view that Thames Water failed properly to respect the rights of claimants and did not do all they reasonably could to prevent odour from migrating from the Mogden Sewage Treatment Works. They did not do what they should have done as a public authority in relation to the rights of the claimants”.

— from a Mogden Residents Action Group press release – 8 December 2011