Can I sue the Environment Agency?

I recently blogged about the case of my client Courton Green who is pursuing a claim for damages for unlawful arrest. The arrest was instigated by a private charity, the RSPCA, who in my experience behave as if they were a quasi- government agency with their self-appointed titles, uniforms and in their relationship with the Police.

I echoed the criticisms which many have made, both in the case of Courton Green and others, that the relationship between the RSPCA and the Police is unhealthily close and all too often the Police appear to be led by the RSPCA into criminalising innocent individuals and pursuing completely ill-founded and inappropriate prosecutions.

Unfortunately, misdirection and misuse of Police resources by what we might describe as law enforcement ‘amateurs’ does not end with private organisations like the RSPCA, but encompasses actual Government agencies who should know better, such as the Environment Agency.

The Environment Agency (EA) is a non-departmental public body supervised/sponsored by DEFRA (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) and is a successor to both the National Rivers Authority and Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Pollution, with a remit which includes flood forecasting/prevention  and the regulation of industrial discharges (i.e control of waste and pollution). 

It was under the Environment Agency’s remit to investigate alleged criminal infringements of environmental law, that it became involved in the lives of my clients Mark and Lisa Walters, two farmers.

The Environment Agency made an application to the Magistrates’ Court for a search warrant to enter and inspect Mark and Lisa’s home under Section 108/Schedule 18 of the Environment Act 1995.

The purpose of the search warrant was to examine business records, belonging to Appleby Recycling, for evidence of alleged unauthorised waste activity. Appleby was a company run by a close relative of Mark, which operated on land owned by Mark.

In the early hours of the morning Mark and Lisa were in bed when they were awoken by loud banging and kicking noises from the front door of their home.

Mark jumped out of bed, got partially dressed and answered the front door, where he was met by the terrifying sight of a large group of men, dressed all in black and armed with crowbars and batons – his immediate impression was that the group of strangers resembled a paramilitary force and he at first believed that his home was being subjected to an aggravated burglary.

We now know that these individuals were officers of the local Police Force, who had been enlisted by the Environment Agency to be the ‘muscle’, as it were, to allow them to execute the search warrant.

The men ordered Mark to step outside, but initially he refused to do so having received no indication from the group as to who they were and not wishing to abandon his family to whatever their intentions were.

As a result, Mark found himself being aggressively manhandled to the floor, where his arms were pulled behind his back and handcuffed to the rear.

As Mark lay defenceless and handcuffed upon the floor, he was threatened by the Police with “150,000 volts” should he make any movement. At this point, several Officers were training their taser weapons upon Mark.

Indeed two of the tasers were actually pressed down onto Mark – one on his neck, and the other on his leg – causing him to be in further terror that he could be electrocuted at any moment.

All of this was overwhelming for a man who had simply been in bed a few minutes before. He was a man of good character with no history of violence; it seems that the Environment Agency investigators had ‘put’ the Police up to this show of force/ level of aggression by expressing concern about the fact that Mark had a firearms licence – although this is hardly something unusual in the farming community, and was absent a single scrap of evidence that Mark would refuse/ resist the search in any way.

Lisa and their teenage daughters  had now also been awoken and startled by this invasion of their home and Mark was caused to feel further distress at the thought of how terrified his wife and children were at the threat both to himself and themselves.

Mark was forced to disclose the whereabouts to the keys of his gun cabinet (which was not – of course –  the actual purpose or subject of the search) and was roughly manhandled by the officers.  His reasonable request to use the bathroom before he was taken from the premises (as it was clear he was going to be) was denied, causing him further discomfort.

Mark was then marched out of his house and to a police vehicle outside.

Mark was now officially informed that he was under arrest in relation to suspected involvement in illegal deposits of waste by Appleby Recycling and was cautioned. He was then driven away at speed to a distant Police Station and taken into custody.

All of this was a shocking and bewildering sequence of events.  As noted above, Mark was a man of good character who had never before had any adverse dealings with the Police.

Later that evening Mark was interviewed by officers from the Environment Agency before being released on bail after over 12 hours detention. He felt the force used against him, as well as the fact of his detention was all completely unnecessary and that he had been deliberately humiliated, disempowered and oppressed by this collusion between the Police and the EA. He had no involvement in any ‘illegal waste’ activity, and his innocence would in due course be vindicated by the total collapse of the case against him.

Whilst Mark was being detained at the Police Station, officers of the Environment Agency carried out a full and extensive search of his family home – which resulted in no documentation actually being recovered or seized.

Lisa Walters, despite her distress, had the presence of mind to request sight of the warrant which the Police/Environment Agency officers were purportedly executing, but this was refused.

No information was disclosed as to the purpose of the search, which Lisa noted was very haphazard – with officers overlooking computers but searching through her daughter’s underwear drawer.  During the course of the search the lead Environment Agency investigator was noted by Lisa to have a ‘Pink Panther’ ring tone on his mobile phone – suggestive of a cocky and unprofessional approach by an ‘amateur Policeman’ in my opinion.

Lisa was left feeling as though the family had been burgled, such was the sense of disrespect towards and violation of the family’s privacy and belongings by the EA and Police officers.

It subsequently became clear that execution of the warrant  had been unlawful from the start, owing to non-compliance with the provisions of Section 108 (6) of the Environment Act 1995.

Section 108 (6) of the Environment Act 1995 provides that –

Except in an emergency, in any case where it is proposed to enter any premises used for residential purposes, or to take heavy equipment onto any premises which are to be entered, any entry by virtue of this section shall only be effected –

  1. After the expiration of at least 7 days notice of the proposed entry given to a person who appears to the authorised person in question to be in occupation of the premises in question, and
  2. Either –
    1. With the consent of the person who is in occupation of the premises; or
    1. Under the authority of a warrant by virtue of Schedule 18 to this Act.

Accordingly, it was a legal requirement that any entry/search of residential premises, such as Mark and Lisa’s home, required the prior issuing of at least 7 days’ notice to the occupiers. No such notice was provided to Mark or Lisa and the resulting entry/search was entirely unlawful.

I pursued claims on behalf of Mark and Lisa against both the Environment Agency and the Police for Trespass to Land, Assault and Battery, False Imprisonment and Misfeasance in Public Office.

Initially both parties denied liability, with the Police asserting as follows –

“The Environment Agency requested Police assistance to effect the arrest of your client as he was a firearms licence holder with 4 firearms recorded, and had been confrontational with the EA in past meetings.”

The Police went on to make it clear they were acting “under the direct instruction” of the Environment Agency, and were present as “agents” of the EA only.

For their part, the Environment Agency sought to argue that the failure to give notice was a mere “technicality”, that their officers had “acted in good faith” and that Court proceedings would be “vigorously” contested.

Notwithstanding this, I am pleased to report that good sense prevailed and the EA agreed to settle Mark and Lisa’s claims for £25,000.

This case to my mind is another example of how gung-ho amateurs (in the form of the Environment Agency officers) can lead much more hardened and experienced law enforcement professionals (in the form of the Police) into making rash judgments and taking unlawful actions.  It is entirely possible that both the EA and the Police were delegating the ‘thinking’ part of this operation to the other.

The mischief of this bungled ‘raid’ on a terrified young family’s home, was then compounded by a typical police predilection for (in effect) converting a search warrant into an arrest warrant by assuming (or so it would seem) that because the Court had granted the right to search for items connected with a criminal offence, there must therefore be authority to arrest as well.

That of course was not the case; the warrant insofar as it had been granted (not that it was properly executed in any event) was a search warrant and not an arrest warrant.

Police powers to arrest Mark on suspicion of any environmental offences were governed by the usual provisions of PACE i.e. the need for reasonable suspicion of the offence to be accompanied by objectively reasonable necessity to arrest.

Mark could (and should) have been invited for an interview as a voluntary attender, as the ultimate settlement of this claim amply demonstrates. Instead he was treated as if he was the suspected member of some kind of organised crime group. The Police should have thought twice about not only the legitimacy of Mark’s arrest, but – in the first place – the decision to use force, including the deployment of multiple taser officers against a peaceable man. The fact that he was the holder of a lawful firearms licence in no way justified such brutal tactics – but the Police in their reply to the claim trotted out one of the worst and most execrable excuses in the book i.e ‘they were just following orders’ from the Environment Agency.

I would hope that both the Environment Agency and the Police have learnt important lessons from this fiasco – such as understanding the basic legislation which governs the exercise of their powers.

The Environment Agency has a number of hugely important jobs to do in protecting the very fabric of our country and the health of the nation; but pretending that it’s the FBI shouldn’t be one of them.

Names changed.

Author: iaingould

Actions against the police solicitor (lawyer) and blogger.