UK: Can Voluntary Compensation Reduce Criminal Fines?

Last Updated: 13 December 2010
Article by Aidan Thomson

The Court of Appeal has recently looked at principles of sentencing for environmental crimes in circumstances where the defendant has already made significant pledges of compensation.

This case of R v Thames Water Utilities Ltd (19 February 2010) centred on a discharge of bleach from Thames Water's plant into a tributary of the River Wandle, in contravention of section 85(1) of the Water Resources Act 1991.

The discharge occurred in the course of a tank cleaning operation at the plant. Thames Water had failed to carry out an adequate risk assessment. Inexperienced and insufficient staff undertook the cleaning operation and inadequate precautions were taken to guard against the possibility of discharge.

There was a short, but important, delay by Thames Water in notifying the Environment Agency of the incident. When the bleach entered the tributary, over two tonnes of fish were killed. Substantial quantities of the fish were of very high quality. The vast majority of the water hog lice, fresh water shrimp and other invertebrates in the affected area also perished. The public had to be kept away from the affected stretches of the river for their own protection.

In the aftermath of the incident, Thames Water pledged the following sums:

  • £7,000 project funding for a local education project;
  • £10,000 in compensation for the two local angling clubs;
  • £30,000 to meet the costs of restocking and an ongoing survey to assess damage to the river's ecology;
  • £200,000 core funding for the Wandle Trust to include support for the cost of an employee who will raise additional project funding to deliver access and habitat improvements along the length of the river; and
  • £250,000 to be paid over five years for a restoration fund to support local projects and improve the river environment.

In passing sentence in the Crown Court, the Recorder noted as aggravating factors: the disastrous consequences of the incident; the lack of risk assessment, the poor initial response and the number of previous offences committed by the defendant. These factors suggested £250,000 as the appropriate level of fine. However, mitigating factors (including Thames Water's acceptance of responsibility; its timely plea of guilty; its introduction of new systems; and its decision to pay and pledge a total of £500,000 in voluntary compensation) were also important. When taken into account, the overall result was a fine of £125,000.

Thames Water appealed against this decision on the basis that:

  • insufficient account was taken of the £500,000 paid in reparation;
  • the level of fine taken as a starting point (£250,000) was too high: and
  • too much weight was given to its previous convictions.

The Court of Appeal reviewed the sentencing principles that emerged from a variety of sources, including: sections 142(1), 143(1) and 143(2) of the Criminal Justice Act 2003; the "Sentencing Advisory Panel Advice to the Court of Appeal in March 2000 in connection with environmental offences"; the "Sentencing Guidelines Council Definitive Guideline on Overarching Principles: Seriousness" published in December 2004, Environment Agency v Milford Haven Port Authority (The Sea Empress); R. v Anglian Water Services Ltd; R. v Balfour Beatty Rail Infrastructure Services Ltd; and R. v Kelleher.

The Court of Appeal acknowledged the Recorder's difficult task. It set out a series of principles to assist courts in setting the appropriate sentence for offenders of this type.

  • The court should assess the seriousness of the offence by reference to its facts, including all aggravating and mitigating factors relating to the offence itself.
  • Having made this assessment, and considered the means of the offender, a notional fine should be set. This notional fine should combine both the punishment and deterrent elements of the sentence. The deterrent element should be the amount over and above the amount of the punishment element that is required to reach a total figure that brings the "necessary message home" to the offender's managers and shareholders.
  • The court should then consider making any appropriate compensation orders. If such an order is made, the court should think about whether the notional fine ought to be reduced.
  • Next, the court should take heed of the extent to which, if at all, the offender has "brought the message home to itself", over and above taking measures to rectify the failures that led to the offence. Account can be taken of things such as the voluntary payment of reparations, and appropriate adjustments to the deterrent element of the notional fine made.
  • The court should then consider any further mitigating features (other than any relating to the offence itself which have already been taken into account above) requiring any further reduction in the amount of the notional fine.
  • Finally, the court should make the appropriate percentage discount for any timely guilty plea.

Applying this approach to the case in hand, the Court of Appeal:

  • could not fault the Recorder's notional starting point of £250,000 (split £75,000 punishment, £175,000 deterrent);
  • felt that it was not possible in the circumstances to make a compensation order;
  • thought that because of the high level of voluntary reparations, Thames Water had succeeded in bringing the message home to itself to such an extent that the deterrent element of the fine should be reduced to nil;
  • felt that there were no mitigating features; and
  • allowed for the full one third discount to the £75,000 punishment element for the timely guilty plea.

The Court of Appeal therefore decided that Thames Water's fine should be reduced to £50,000.

Sentencing procedure will therefore take account of pledges of reparation. However, the Court of Appeal did sound two notes of warning, saying that:

  • In deciding on appropriate punishment and deterrence, it must be recognised that in making voluntary reparation an offender is likely to make a public relations gain, and may also be able to spread payments out to a much greater extent than would be the case if a fine and compensation order was imposed. There can be no question of buying off the punishment aspect of sentence.
  • As a result of following this approach in the future there may well be occasions when, on the face of the court record, a relatively modest sentence is imposed on a defendant for what was, in fact, an offence that would normally attract a much higher sentence. There is a risk that a court dealing with a subsequent offence by the same defendant is misled as to the seriousness of the previous offence simply because of the relatively modest size of the penalty. Investigators and prosecutors therefore need to ensure that the full facts of previous offences are set out.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

In association with
Up-coming Events Search
Font Size:
Mondaq on Twitter
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
Email Address
Company Name
Confirm Password
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Media & IT
 Real Estate
 Wealth Mgt
Asia Pacific
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
United States
Worldwide Updates
Check to state you have read and
agree to our Terms and Conditions

Terms & Conditions and Privacy Statement (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd and as a user you are granted a non-exclusive, revocable license to access the Website under its terms and conditions of use. Your use of the Website constitutes your agreement to the following terms and conditions of use. Mondaq Ltd may terminate your use of the Website if you are in breach of these terms and conditions or if Mondaq Ltd decides to terminate your license of use for whatever reason.

Use of

You may use the Website but are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the content and articles available (the Content). You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these terms & conditions or with the prior written consent of Mondaq Ltd. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information about’s content, users or contributors in order to offer them any services or products which compete directly or indirectly with Mondaq Ltd’s services and products.


Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the documents and related graphics published on this server for any purpose. All such documents and related graphics are provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers hereby disclaim all warranties and conditions with regard to this information, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. In no event shall Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use or performance of information available from this server.

The documents and related graphics published on this server could include technical inaccuracies or typographical errors. Changes are periodically added to the information herein. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers may make improvements and/or changes in the product(s) and/or the program(s) described herein at any time.


Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including what sort of information you are interested in, for three primary purposes:

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, newsletter alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our information providers who provide information free for your use.

Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) do not sell or provide your details to third parties other than information providers. The reason we provide our information providers with this information is so that they can measure the response their articles are receiving and provide you with information about their products and services.

If you do not want us to provide your name and email address you may opt out by clicking here .

If you do not wish to receive any future announcements of products and services offered by Mondaq by clicking here .

Information Collection and Use

We require site users to register with Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to view the free information on the site. We also collect information from our users at several different points on the websites: this is so that we can customise the sites according to individual usage, provide 'session-aware' functionality, and ensure that content is acquired and developed appropriately. This gives us an overall picture of our user profiles, which in turn shows to our Editorial Contributors the type of person they are reaching by posting articles on Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) – meaning more free content for registered users.

We are only able to provide the material on the Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) site free to site visitors because we can pass on information about the pages that users are viewing and the personal information users provide to us (e.g. email addresses) to reputable contributing firms such as law firms who author those pages. We do not sell or rent information to anyone else other than the authors of those pages, who may change from time to time. Should you wish us not to disclose your details to any of these parties, please tick the box above or tick the box marked "Opt out of Registration Information Disclosure" on the Your Profile page. We and our author organisations may only contact you via email or other means if you allow us to do so. Users can opt out of contact when they register on the site, or send an email to with “no disclosure” in the subject heading

Mondaq News Alerts

In order to receive Mondaq News Alerts, users have to complete a separate registration form. This is a personalised service where users choose regions and topics of interest and we send it only to those users who have requested it. Users can stop receiving these Alerts by going to the Mondaq News Alerts page and deselecting all interest areas. In the same way users can amend their personal preferences to add or remove subject areas.


A cookie is a small text file written to a user’s hard drive that contains an identifying user number. The cookies do not contain any personal information about users. We use the cookie so users do not have to log in every time they use the service and the cookie will automatically expire if you do not visit the Mondaq website (or its affiliate sites) for 12 months. We also use the cookie to personalise a user's experience of the site (for example to show information specific to a user's region). As the Mondaq sites are fully personalised and cookies are essential to its core technology the site will function unpredictably with browsers that do not support cookies - or where cookies are disabled (in these circumstances we advise you to attempt to locate the information you require elsewhere on the web). However if you are concerned about the presence of a Mondaq cookie on your machine you can also choose to expire the cookie immediately (remove it) by selecting the 'Log Off' menu option as the last thing you do when you use the site.

Some of our business partners may use cookies on our site (for example, advertisers). However, we have no access to or control over these cookies and we are not aware of any at present that do so.

Log Files

We use IP addresses to analyse trends, administer the site, track movement, and gather broad demographic information for aggregate use. IP addresses are not linked to personally identifiable information.


This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that Mondaq (or its affiliate sites) are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of these third party sites. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this Web site.

Surveys & Contests

From time-to-time our site requests information from users via surveys or contests. Participation in these surveys or contests is completely voluntary and the user therefore has a choice whether or not to disclose any information requested. Information requested may include contact information (such as name and delivery address), and demographic information (such as postcode, age level). Contact information will be used to notify the winners and award prizes. Survey information will be used for purposes of monitoring or improving the functionality of the site.


If a user elects to use our referral service for informing a friend about our site, we ask them for the friend’s name and email address. Mondaq stores this information and may contact the friend to invite them to register with Mondaq, but they will not be contacted more than once. The friend may contact Mondaq to request the removal of this information from our database.


This website takes every reasonable precaution to protect our users’ information. When users submit sensitive information via the website, your information is protected using firewalls and other security technology. If you have any questions about the security at our website, you can send an email to

Correcting/Updating Personal Information

If a user’s personally identifiable information changes (such as postcode), or if a user no longer desires our service, we will endeavour to provide a way to correct, update or remove that user’s personal data provided to us. This can usually be done at the “Your Profile” page or by sending an email to

Notification of Changes

If we decide to change our Terms & Conditions or Privacy Policy, we will post those changes on our site so our users are always aware of what information we collect, how we use it, and under what circumstances, if any, we disclose it. If at any point we decide to use personally identifiable information in a manner different from that stated at the time it was collected, we will notify users by way of an email. Users will have a choice as to whether or not we use their information in this different manner. We will use information in accordance with the privacy policy under which the information was collected.

How to contact Mondaq

You can contact us with comments or queries at

If for some reason you believe Mondaq Ltd. has not adhered to these principles, please notify us by e-mail at and we will use commercially reasonable efforts to determine and correct the problem promptly.