Customer service centre 020 3286 5047
"The personal statement is important as a way
of gauging motivation and enthusiasm". Head Of Admissions,
Hamid Jahankhani, University of East London.





Law - Unedited

View Edited | View Critique | Back To Main Table

Case analysis of: Empress Car Ltd Car Company (Abertillery) Ltd. v. National Rivers Authority

Material Facts
An unknown person opened an unlocked tap on diesel oil drum, which belonged to Empress Car Ltd. Diesel escaped out of the main tank through an extension pipe, to a drum which Empress Car Ltd had positioned outside the protective Dyke, surrounding the tank. The drum overflowed, causing the diesel to spill into a drain which flowed into the river.

Legal Issue
The legal issue of this case rests with the interpretation of the word "cause" which is found in S.85 of the Water Resources Act 1991: - "a person contravenes that this section if he causes or knowingly permits any poisonous noxious or polluting matter of any solid waste matter to enter any controlled waters".

The decision of the Crown Court was appealed by Empress Car Ltd by disputing the notion of causing, stating that it required some positive act. To be committed it must be proved beyond reasonable doubt that Empress Car Ltd caused or knowingly permitted polluting matter. The prosecution involves two stages:

1) Did the defendant do something
2) Did the act cause pollution

In analysis of S.85 of the Water Resources Act 1991, Lord Hoffman identifies the notion of "causing" should be present in both the points above by stating that "..the notion of causing is present in both limbs." E.g. what was done caused the pollution and what was not done caused the pollution.

Lord Hoffman proceeded to then drew attention to the judgement in National Rivers Authority v. Yorkshire Water Services Ltd. [1995] 1 A.C. 444 and Wychavon District Council v. National Rivers Authority [1993] 1 W.L.R. 125. Bearing these cases in mind S.85 (1) of the Water Resources Act 1991 does not contain the requirement that the positive act has caused the polluting matter to escape, which has led to confusion over the interpretation of ‘cause.’

Either way the appellant was at fault. The liability is strict, not based on negligence, so the prosecution does not have to prove mens rea. Whilst there must be a positive act by the appellant the act may not be the cause of pollution, for example maintaining lagoons may result in a lack of repairs thus, this is doing something that caused the pollution.

Statutory Interpretation
When considering the meaning of the statue lord Hoffman adopted an authoritive approach to interpretation. Coming now to the interpretation of the law, Lord Hoffman had a number of choices to interpretation. Some insist that the law is to be interpreted literally, however absurd the consequences: it is for the legislature to put the absurdity right. This means that one must look to the language of the law and nothing else. This is known as the "literal rule" of interpretation. Others, more liberal in their approach, prefer to modify the words contained in the law so as to avoid the absurdity. When, for example, the ordinary meaning of a word leads to some result which cannot reasonably be supposed to have been the intention of the Legislature, some other possible meaning may be looked for. This is sometimes called the "the golden rule".

In the present case Lord Hoffman identified the approach of the divisional courts, where the common sense interpretation of the natural, ordinary meaning presented the absurd result. Lord Hoffman analysed this approach with the intention of the legislative to be collected from the statue, identifying situations where this would lead to an absurd outcome, as the interpretation of the word ‘cause’ is dependent on a number of case facts.

Lord Hoffman summarised the approach to statutory interpretation as the question is not what caused the polluting matter but did the appellant cause the pollution? Lord Hoffman described that it is not a common sense approach needed but a question of law thus, adopting the golden rule.

The ratio decidendi
The ratio decidendi of the case is whether it can be said that the defendant "caused" the escape of pollution into the river. The notion of causality was adjudicated to be present regardless of an additional intervening cause. The deciding factor was the question of: had an act been committed and did such an act contribute foreseeable to the escape of pollution? – precautions were not taken to guard against foreseeable events such as vandalism. Thus, Lord Hoffman concluded that only an exceptional event could therefore provide a defence against liability as per S.85 (1) of the Water Resources Act 1991.

The Impress decsision
The reasons Lord Hoffman gives for the view that the divisional court wrongly allowed the appeal and that the magistrate correctly convicted in Impress Ltd V Rees is that a deliberate act of a third party caused the pollution does not in itself mean that the defendant’s creation of a situation in which the third party could so act did not also cause the pollution for the purposes of S.85 of the Water Resources Act 1991.

Consequently the divisional court ruling to allow an appeal based on the fact that "it was not the conduct of the appellants but the intervening act of the unauthorised person which caused the oil to enter the river" is inconsistent with Lord Hoffman’s support of Lord Wilberforce statement.
"It should be regarded as a decision that in every case the act of a third person necessarily interrupts the chain of causation the installation or plant from which the flow took place".

Thus, Lord Hoffman concludes that "although it is not an absolute liability in the sense that all that has to be shown in that the polluting matter escaped from the defendants land irrespective of how this happened. It must be still possible to say that the defendant caused the pollution".