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A former Oxford academic has filed a US-style class action lawsuit against Severn Trent, one of Britain’s biggest water companies, for allegedly under-reporting sewage spills and overcharging customers.
Carolyn Roberts, a former Oxford university professor and environmental consultant, has filed a claim in the Competition Appeal Tribunal against the company, which provides water and waste services to more than 4.5mn homes.
Roberts, who is represented by law firm Leigh Day, is planning to file similar suits against other large water companies. She has accused Severn Trent of misleading regulators about the number of times they discharged raw and untreated sewage into waterways, resulting in customers being “unfairly overcharged”.
Households paid more as a result of the “serial and serious under-reporting,” which should have led to penalties and pushed down bills, said Roberts.
The claim is being brought under rules introduced by the Consumer Rights Act 2015, which enabled a single individual to bring an antitrust claim on behalf of many millions of affected customers. The law allows individual customers to be automatically included in any litigation unless they opt out, but the tribunal must first permit the class action to go ahead.
Roberts said: “Millions of consumers have been paying their water bills on the basis that water companies are meeting their targets, but instead every year water companies let raw or only partially treated sewage into the environment in breach of the rules.”
Water companies are required to report their own sewage and storm water outflows but an analysis of Environment Agency data by the Liberal Democrats last week revealed that hundred of monitors tracking sewage spills at bathing waters around England were faulty last year, meaning people may have been unwittingly swimming in polluted seas.
The Environment Agency is also investigating potential illegal discharges at more than 2,000 sewage treatment works across England and Wales while Ofwat is weighing further action against six water companies over concerns that they might have breached regulations at their plants.
Severn Trent said it was a “highly speculative claim with no merit which we strongly refute . . . Should pollutions ever occur, they are always reported to the Environment Agency. Any claim to the contrary is wholly and completely wrong.
“We consistently deliver for our customers, and recently received the highest 4* status for environmental performance from the Environment Agency for the fourth year running,” it added.
The legal challenge is one of a number faced by water companies and the government as anger mounts over a mixture of storm water and raw sewage pouring into rivers and coastal waters, threatening human and environmental health. However, it would be the first class action-style lawsuit to be brought against the utility groups.
US-style class actions have become increasingly popular in the UK, although claims are not guaranteed to proceed. Since the 2015 legislation, seven class action lawsuits have been allowed to proceed to trial, with many more awaiting approval and some refused by the tribunal.
Water UK, which represents the industry, said: “This highly speculative claim is entirely without merit. The regulator has confirmed that over 99 per cent of sewage works comply with their legal requirements. If companies fail to deliver on their commitments, then customer bills are already adjusted accordingly.”